Give Hewlett-Packard's management credit for keeping the company's annual shareholders meeting as uneventful as possible. Considering the soap opera drama leading up to today's event, that was no mean feat.
Earlier in the day, Autonomy founder Mike Lynch published an open letter, suggesting questions that shareholders ought to ask of management in connection with the allegations that HP made against Autonomy after paying $11.1 billion to buy the software company. In November, HP shocked Wall Street when it took an $8.8 billion accounting charge related to the acquisition. At the time, the company said that it had discovered "extensive evidence" of fraudulent accounting and failed disclosures on Autonomy's part leading up to the sale. Lynch, who has since set up a Web site to present his side of the dispute, dismissed the charges and said that HP shoulders the blame for mishandling the company post-acquisition.
Ever since, HP and Lynch have sparred publicly over who is to blame. The latest salvo came a few days ago when HP said in a filing that the U.K. Serious Fraud Office had launched an investigation into the alleged irregularities of HP's acquisition of Autonomy.
But there were no pyrotechnics today as the presenters steered deftly away from one of the company's biggest-ever debacles. The company did confirm that Ralph Whitworth, the activist investor, Gary Reiner, and G. Kennedy Thompson were appointed to a special committee to investigate the Autonomy acquisition.
The only flashes of drama came when speakers from both sides of the Israel-Palestine dispute offered brief comments. One questioner, who described himself as a Presbyterian minister, contended that HP was selling its products and services in a way that strengthened the "occupation" of Palestine. Another shareholder yelled out "bull----" when a different speaker, also identified as a reverend, offered similar sentiments.
But CEO Meg Whitman wasn't about to get sidetracked by Middle Eastern politics or the controversy surrounding the botched Autonomy acquisition. Instead, she focused on nuts and bolts, offering a measured appraisal of the company's progress and revisiting familiar themes. She said the company's turnaround continues, but needs to grow revenue faster.
Taking the podium at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., where HP held its meeting, Whitman offered a moderately cautious description of the company's progress since taking over nearly 18 months ago.
She described 2013 as a "fix and rebuild year," which she said would lead to a year of "recovery and expansion" in 2014, the idea being to return HP to its historic role as one of the leaders of the technology industry.
She also pointed to gains HP made by streamlining an organization that had grown unwieldy, if not bloated. She reported that cash flow from operations was $2.6 billion at the end of the last quarter, up 115 percent year over year.
"We're not done," she said, adding that HP has "a long way to go."
Ballots for the new board
The influential shareholder watchdog group, Institutional Shareholder Services, had come out against reelecting Chairman Ray Lane. It also urged shareholders to oppose the reelection of directors John Hammergren and G. Kennedy Thompson. Another shareholder rights organization, Glass Lewis & Co., said it favored retaining Lane, but recommended dumping Hammergren, Thompson, and directors Rajiv Gupta and Marc Andreessen.
All 11 nominees were voted onto the board.