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HP's Hurd lets us pretend Compaq never happened

Tricks are for Fiorina

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HP's board hired Mark Hurd as the company's new CEO for three main reasons - he's duller than Carly Fiorina, he's supposed to have more operational expertise than Fiorina, and he's not at all associated with the Compaq acquisition Fiorina engineered.

Hiring reason number three stands out after Hurd today held his first press conference. The subject of the Compaq buy only came up once or twice during the event - a rarity in HP Land. The failures, the successes, the analyst scorn, the employee loathing all belong to Hurd but aren't of him. He didn't create the mess. He has to clean it up.

"I can think of few companies that have such a strong foundation of talent, leading edge (research and development) and enviable market position," Hurd said, during the press conference.

He's right too. It's not like Fiorina turned HP into a total disaster from a financial point of view. HP had its up and downs during her tenure but quite a few major tech players still have their pre-bubble CEOs in place and have not performed as well as HP in recent years. It's that Compaq albatross hanging around Fiorina's neck that pushed her onto the exclusive unemployment line reserved for fabulously wealthy business superstars. She just could not escape the Compaq baggage.

It's always amusing to see a fresh CEO try to navigate his way through that initial press conference. Reporters want immediate answers about what direction the company will take. What changes will be made. When will they be made. Who's on their way up? Who's on their way out?

Hurd did the standard dance and emphasized that he doesn't start until April 1 and had only been at HP's headquarters since "11 o'clock last night."

"I think I will take my time to understand where we are before we go out with any strategy discussions about really any topic at this point," he said.

Hurd also faced the inevitable questions about whether or not he planned to break HP up either into consumer and enterprise companies or into separate computing and printing/imaging firms. Fiorina met the same questions but had fewer answer options. She could hardly shove HP through a difficult breakup just a couple years after cramming it together with Compaq. Hurd, however, might be able to pull this off . . . eventually. He doesn't have the tonnage of ill will weighing him down. . . yet.

One reporter who pushed hard on the breakup issue received the only retort that neared the confrontational. "I really do think that question is probably misplaced," Hurd said.

Fiorina would have killed to use that line - just once. But past actions made dodging the issue impossible.

To be sure, Hurd will be loved for taking a bit of pressure off HP. No need to have the press always pounding away on the company's ills. "Nothing to see here. I used to sell ATMs. I'm boring. Check out my crap suit."

Hurd will also be loved if he can in fact make HP a smooth running machine - Dellian, if you will. Fiorina had many pieces of flair, but she failed to master the craft that is nuts and bolts.

At one point, Hurd indirectly charged Fiorina with making mistakes.

"It's also clear that the company is not performing to its potential," he said.

Hurd then quickly backed away from this terse statement, saying he did not want to talk about the past.

"The one thing that has probably always stood out to me is the passion of HP's employees."

Good.

"When I look at HP, I see a company that is fundamentally sound."

Better.

We're not going to see any disastrous mergers out of you, are we? We'd like to forget that Compaq mess. Please, dear god, let us forget and move on.

"I don't think you'll find me really trying to do anything very tricky."

That's it! ®

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