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November 30, 2012

As a Boston resident, I can’t help but feel that over the past several years Hewlett-Packard shareholders have been living their own version of the 2011 Red Sox season, capped off now with the Autonomy acquisition debacle.

The 2011 Red Sox were a team of destiny – a roster full of all-stars, dazzling prospects and a manager who had recently brought them two World Series Championships.  Sports Illustrated predicted that their win in the World Series would cap off a 100 win regular season. The reality is, the 2011 Red Sox now have the distinction as being the team with the most epic late season collapse in Major League Baseball history, which began a period of intense scrutiny, finger pointing and outright disdain from fans and media alike. I see some direct correlations to HP and the Red Sox. In the end, the Sox fired their manager. Should HP fire CEO Meg Whitman? Yes, and here’s why.

In 2005, HP was on top of the business world. The mistakes of former CEO Carly Fiorina had been absorbed and HP’s new CEO Mark Hurd, a charismatic and aggressive executive, promised to take the technology giant to new levels. He was right. He brought HP shareholders an unprecedented period of prosperity that made the company the number one technology conglomerate in the world. That is, until August 2010, when HP began its own version of the Red Sox 2011 collapse – the board got rid of Hurd amid allegations of sexual misconduct. HP’s board then hired former SAP co-CEO Leo Apotheker to take the reigns as CEO. Hurd walked away with a severance package reportedly valued at up to $53 million.


Apotheker, aware of shareholder angst over Hurd and his severance, engineered a board overhaul with the election of seven new directors in January 2011.  Nevertheless,  just nine months later Apotheker was terminated for several bad business decisions, including a strategic move away from the PC business. Before Apotheker was out for good, he closed an $11.1 billion acquisition of Autonomy, the second largest software company in Europe after SAP. As to Apotheker’s successor, the HP board chose Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and one of the new directors brought in by Apotheker.

It’s what happened next that is still up for debate. What we do know is that HP plans on writing off $8.8 billion of the Autonomy acquisition, while alleging serious accounting improprieties and a willful effort by Autonomy to mislead HP and its shareholders.

We are in the early stages of what is likely to be a very long and litigious road in regards to the Autonomy transaction. There is already no shortage of finger-pointing going on between HP, Autonomy and the accounting firms which were involved in the due diligence prior to the close of the transaction. At this point, it is too early to speculate where the blame appropriately lies. For HP’s shareholders, however, this growing scandal needs to be seen as a turning point for this storied company. The company may not survive another misstep. No other company has sustained the series of blunders and debacles that HP has over the past several years. The fact that it has survived these follies is a testament to the quality of its products and people.

Some observers argue that another overhaul of the board is necessary – similar to what Apotheker did in 2011. Although they have made mistakes that have cost HP’s shareholder, HP has an extremely talented board, many of whom have only been on the board for about a year and a half. One could argue, though, that it is time for HP directors John Hammergren and G. Kennedy Thompson, who have been on the board since 2005 and 2006, respectively, to act in the best interests of HP’s shareholders and move on.

The removal of a couple of board members, however, is not going to solve HP’s woes. It needs the type of stability and vision that can only come from new management. Meg Whitman is talented, but is not the right leader for HP. It is time for the HP board to design an exit for Whitman and delegate her leadership to an executive with substantial expertise in technology hardware – which is, after all, HP’s bread and butter. Whitman’s lack of true technology expertise (as opposed to experience in the consumer Internet space) has always been a source of concern for many HP shareholders. This is not at all to suggest that this is the basis for HP’s current woes. Rather, at times new management is necessary – if nothing more than to assuage shareholder concerns. When you are CEO of HP, it is results that matter.  This is a reality that Whitman knows all too well – after all, she was a member of the board that got rid of her predecessor.

There are brighter times ahead for HP. After all, when the Red Sox fired Manager Terry Francona it brought in veteran manager Bobby Valentine … on second thought HP, take your time with this hire.

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