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Hurd's HP legacy: Dell racer, IBM chaser

Man executing on another's plan

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Somewhere in California, Carly Fiorina must nearly have choked to death from laughter while stumping for a US Senate seat as news of her successor's sudden departure broke following a sexual-harassment probe.

It has not been an easy five years for Mark Hurd, the former president, chief executive officer, and chairman of HP, the largest IT vendor in the world. Hurd, who took over as CEO in the wake of the topsy-turvy reign of Carly Fiorina in 2005, came in from staid NCR and made HP a little more predictable, financially. Something Wall Street and HP customers alike wanted very much.

The tough tasks of making the HP-Compaq merger work in a radically changing, post-dot-com IT environment and building up HP's software and services business — goals set by Fiorina shortly after she came into HP from the outside as president in 1999 — fell to Hurd.

Fiorina tried and failed to buy the IT consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers, eventually eaten by IBM. HP under Hurd recovered from that mistake by eating EDS in May 2008 for $13.9bn.

Over the past five years, Hurd can take credit for an improved PC business, a steady printer and consumables business, and a rationalized and growing server business where HP is now both the shipment and revenue leader. The expansive plan to turn HP into a real IT player might have been all Fiorina flair, but the execution — done with a magnifying glass, sharp pencil, and a pair of pliers — was pure Hurd.

Hurd had a reputation as a tough cost-cutter when he ran NCR, and he didn't soften any when he left Dayton, Ohio in 2005 for Palo Alto, California.

Soon after taking over as CEO in the spring of 2005, Hurd cut 10 per cent of the workforce, or 15,200 people. And in the wake of the EDS acquisition, 24,600 jobs got put on the block, and Hurd pressed for voluntary pay cuts for employees in Europe while at the same time raking in $24.2m in compensation for himself. In 2008, Hurd took in $33.9m.

HP could — and did — immediately cut pay in February 2009 by between five and 15 per cent for employees in the US during the economic meltdown. Hurd took a 20 per cent pay cut, just to show he was one of the boys. But Hurd was not hurting for cash — certainly not enough to fudge his expense reports, which is one of the reasons why he was forced to resign.

A year after Hurd came on board, HP wrested control of the desktop PC business back from archrival Dell, and a year later HP took the market-share lead for notebooks. As HP was managing to get its act together in the PC business, Dell was busy selling PCs it knew were crap and doing everything it could to keep the bags of cash coming in from Intel. Predictably, Dell's business suffered as much from its own missteps as it did from HP's resurgence.

By the math, the merged HP and Compaq should have immediately been the king of servers in terms of revenues, topping Big Blue — a feat no one had ever accomplished in the history of the systems business.

But the HP-Compaq systems merger coincided with a radical shift away from big and expensive proprietary and Unix machines and towards cheaper boxes running Unix and Linux, so it took considerably longer than planned for HP to catch up to and topple IBM.

But thanks to IBM's revenue dropping because of mainframe and Power Systems transitions and x64-based servers rebounding, HP finally bested IBM in server revenues in the first quarter of this year — nearly a decade after the Compaq deal was announced.

It's very unlikely that this will hold in the fourth quarter, when IBM should post some impressive mainframe and Power Systems sales. But anything goes for 2011, and the safe money is on HP maintaining and extending its lead on IBM in the server racket.

It will take considerably longer — how does infinity sound? — for HP's services business to catch up with Big Blue's. In its fiscal 2009 ended in October last year, HP had sales of $114.6bn, but services were only $8.9bn of that.

IBM, by contrast, had sales of $103.6bn in calendar, but $58.9bn of that was for services. And yes, Fiorina was right: HP should have bought that PwC consulting business, which generated $19.6bn in sales for Big Blue in calendar 2009.

Lesjak in charge - for now

Now, Cathie Lesjak, who has been HP's chief financial officer since January 2007, has been handed the reins that were yanked out of Hurd's hands by the HP board of directors. That's just as what happened to Bob Wayman, HP's long-time CFO, who was handed the reins to become interim CEO when the board gave Fiorina the bounce in 2005 and began the search that resulted in Hurd being brought over from NCR. Lesjak has already said she will not do the CEO job.

Lesjak will be in charge of reporting HP's financials on August 19 all by her lonesome, something she was no doubt not expecting. To try to soothe a jumpy Wall Street, HP released preliminary financial results for the third quarter of fiscal 2010 ended in July.

The company said revenues would be between $32.5bn and $32.7bn and earnings per share would come in at between $1.03 and $1.05. HP expects revenues for the full fiscal 2010 to be $125.3bn and $125.5bn, with EPS of $3.62 to $3.64. Those are some pretty tight numbers, and they show just how confident HP is in its business.

As for Hurd, there's always politics. ®

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