2HRS2GO: Vineyard fits Platt better than H-P nowadays

4 min read

SAN FRANCISCO -- I wonder if there's something in the Bay Area air that inspires people to shift down from long and seemingly defined careers.

Former California governor and presidential candidate Jerry Brown heeds the call of his political muse again to win election -- as a small city mayor.

After decades in the top echelons of professional football, including a 10-year stint that established him as the preeminent gridiron mind of his time, former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh spent three years as the dullest TV commentator of his time before a return to coaching -- in college.

Now the recent leader of a Silicon Valley giant will head for a company that's a few scales down, at least in terms of size and economic importance. Lewis Platt, the soon-to-be-former chairman of Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HWP) and not yet half a year removed as CEO, has found his next employer -- at Napa Valley outfit called Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates.

Talk about lower corporate ambitions. Six months ago Platt steered a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Two months from now he'll be in charge of a privately-held, family-owned company that counts the 1982 "Best American Chardonnay" award among its highest accolades.

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Kendall-Jackson went with the oft-used recruiting theory that says industry experience matters less than "executive" skills. "Lew Platt obviously has skills and talents that transcend the (computer) industry that he's spent a long time in," says James Caudill, spokesman for Kendall-Jackson. "Good management talent is good management talent."

Jess Jackson wants to step back from managing the company he founded 25 years ago and focus on "artisan" elements of winemaking. Kendall-Jackson talked to a few candidates, but Platt's work at H-P amply demonstrated his ability to run a maturing company, Caudill says. "We're moving from an entrepreneurial state to a different level," he says.

The irony must scream at people involved with the technology industry. Entrepreneurial culture now holds the stature of the ideal state of being for tech companies, though not all of them live up to the image.

Old-line tech companies like H-P certainly haven't, which is one reason why Platt found a replacement for himself. He decided he wasn't the man to guide H-P through the modern IT world, and he was probably right, judging by the company's disappointing results during the last few years of his tenure. Hewlett-Packard shareholders certainly aren't crying over his departure.

But H-P's reputation as a worker-friendly company worked in Platt's favor this time. "In the wine industry in particular, it's a very competitive market for talent," Caudill says. "Anything that will help us to build a culture that is inviting ... is a plus."

Sadly, "employee-friendly" sits in a group of ideas to which the average budding technology company pays short shrift. Silicon Valley -- and increasingly, the American corporate world in general -- believes in long hours and absolute dedication in return for stock options, as opposed to quality-of-life issues such as family time, child care and vacation days. As many have pointed out, that's makes it a field for young people.

And that makes the wine industry anomalous nowadays, Caudill says.

"I think experience, particularly with complex business issues ... is probably more welcomed here," he says. "Life experience means a lot also."

In that light, today's announcement shouldn't be so surprising, since it involves the 58-year-old Platt. Besides, he's also an avid wine collector, according to Caudill.

So here's a toast of good luck to Lew Platt. Maybe his H-P leadership didn't fulfill Wall Street's hopes, but he pretty much acted as you'd expect from an insider veteran of an old-fashioned firm. That's not what Silicon Valley wants; but it just might come in handy at a vineyard.

Other issues:

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