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Former HP chief Lew Platt dies

Platt served more than 30 years at the computer maker, then brought a "steady hand" to Boeing.

Lew Platt, the man who ran Hewlett-Packard for several years and engineered the spin-off of Agilent Technologies, died Thursday of a brain aneurism. He was 64.

Since 2003, Platt had served as lead director at aerospace giant Boeing, which in recent years has confronted a number of challenges.

"Lew shepherded Boeing with strength, grace, dignity and integrity through a period when the company most needed his steady hand," Jim McNerney, Boeing chairman, president and CEO, said in a statement on Friday. "He was a compassionate man who put his own retirement and personal plans on the back burner to ensure that Boeing never missed a beat through its recent recovery."

Lew Platt

But Platt's greatest claim to executive fame came from his time as CEO of HP from 1992 to 1999.

A graduate of Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, Platt came to HP in 1966 and worked his way up its ranks. His long tenure became both a plus and a minus. The "HP Way," which encouraged employee loyalty, was in full swing during his tenure. Platt, according to sources, also became an advocate of ensuring that female executives weren't passed over unfairly. Partly as a result, some of HP's key executives, such as Ann Livermore, have been women.

"Lew made a tremendous contribution to HP over the many years he was with the company. He was an exceptional person and did an exceptional job demonstrating what the HP culture was all about," said Dick Hackborn, a longtime board member and former executive at the computer company. "I'm extremely saddened that he has passed away."

At the same time, the company moved slowly and missed opportunities, even by its own admission.

Platt, who announced that he intended to resign and spin off HP's test and measurement group into Agilent in March 1999, said himself that the changes were taking place so that the conglomerate could become more agile.

"Even before the announcement of the splitting of the company and the new CEO, we had spent a lot of time looking at ourselves. We needed to make some cultural shifts," Platt said in a July 1999 interview. "We needed to hold fast to the core values but change some of the practices. (We needed to) speed up decision making."

Change, however, is not without its challenges. Platt was followed by Lucent Technologies alumna Carly Fiorina, who initially was widely praised but subsequently led HP into a merger with Compaq that some still question today. HP's board asked Fiorina to resign in February 2005.

Corporate tumult aside, one family member of an HP co-founder recalled the loyalty and admiration employees had for Platt.

"Lew was such a straightforward and honest guy," said David W. Packard, son of the late HP co-founder David Packard. "The employees loved him."

The younger Packard, who stepped down from HP's board in 1999 over a disagreement with Platt over the Agilent spin-off, said he always held Platt in high regard, even though they held divergent views.

"I could disagree with Lew, but I never started a public campaign against him," Packard said. "He was such a decent person."

His father felt the same way, Packard said.

When entering the waiting room at Stanford Hospital, where his father was in a coma, Packard recalled seeing Platt sitting at one end of the room and the family's longtime housekeeper at the other end of the room.

"She looked over at me and then over to Lew and said, 'Your father loves that man so much,'" recalled Packard.

Platt's friends said the former HP CEO seemed to be in good health and his death has taken them by surprise. Platt and his wife, for example, were planning to host a dinner party this weekend at their home in Portola Valley, which is roughly 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Dean Morton, former HP chief operating officer and a longtime friend of Platt, was planning to attend Platt's party when he received a call last night from the former CEO's wife, he said. Platt and his wife were driving from their home in Bodega Bay, where he owned a small vineyard, to their Portola Valley home.

"We were going to see them this weekend and that added to the shock," Morton said.

Morton, who has known Platt for 38 years, said the former CEO would complain about his busy schedule, yet always took on another job.

"He took on lots and lots of things and everything he did, he did extremely well. He was very organized," Morton said. "He wasn't a workaholic. He knew how to have fun and was great fun to be around. He had a great sense of humor, was well-informed and could talk about anything."

In addition to being a wine enthusiast, fisher and hunter, Platt also had a passion for fantasy football, which he often indulged in with former HP employees.

And over the years, Platt and former HP executive Rick Belluzzo mended their once strained relationship. Belluzzo left HP for SGI back in 1998, over disagreements in the direction HP should take. Belluzzo went on to become SGI's chief executive.

"A couple of years ago, I sent him an email and he was quick to respond," Belluzzo recalled. "We would get together every year at a dinner and reflect on what we did wrong at HP and what we would have done differently...I grew to respect him over the last couple of years. Few CEOs are willing and able to admit what they did wrong."

Belluzzo noted that during these meetings with Platt, he came to know the former CEO better than he had while working for him on a daily basis.

"When you get out of a situation, you are able to reflect more," Belluzzo said. "I saw what a dedicated person he was to the missions he was on. He always stepped up to the mission. I'm really glad, especially now, that we were able to come full circle."

CNET's Dawn Kawamoto contributed to this story.