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Vale, HP's Lew Platt

By Peter Burrows Just over a month ago, I sent former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Lew Platt an e-mail asking about a meeting he and fellow HP alumni had with the new HP boss, Mark Hurd. I had covered HP's ups and downs closely in recent years and Platt came to trust me enough to share his thoughts on most occasions.

"We were all impressed with Mark," he wrote back, in his characteristically gracious, straightforward way. "He's very down to earth, very hands-on and quite humble. I'm confident HP people (at least long-time HP people) will like him."

HONESTY AND INTEGRITY. Truer words couldn't have been spoken of Platt himself. He died suddenly on Sept. 8 at 64 after suffering an aneurysm. For those that knew him, it was a heavy blow.

Platt was respected, admired, and just plain liked by HP employees, customers, even rivals. Platt was genuine, self-effacing, and honest. He was quick to deflect personal accolades to others, and to accept criticisms -- and there were many -- with grace.

Most of all, Platt was a principled leader. "He was the anti-flash CEO," says Good to Great author Jim Collins. "But he had deeply held values, and he never saw any contradiction between those values and having a ferocious will to win. He felt you should expect all of that of yourself, and more."

GRACEFUL EXIT. After Platt became HP's CEO in 1993, the company saw one of the most remarkable growth spurts in tech history, its sales almost doubling, to $38 billion in 1996 from $20 billion in his first year. As a result, Platt became one of tech's more unlikely -- and most reluctant -- media stars.

With his thick glasses and hulking frame, he seemed to understand that he didn't have a face for magazines. Yet he played ball when asked, even agreeing to sit atop of a bunch of crates on the roof of an HP building for a BusinessWeek cover story in 1995.

Unfortunately, Platt's pragmatic, nothing-fancy approach didn't fit with the go-go demands of the late 1990s. By early 1999, with HP having failed to capitalize on the Internet boom, Platt gallantly decided it was time to step aside. By that stage it had become clear that Wall Street, many employees, and key members of HP's board wanted higher-octane leadership.

SINGLE PARENT. So for many, the lasting image of Platt was that of a stodgy old-timer ousted to make room for the flashier Carly Fiorina. But that's the wrong impression, says Collins. Platt presided over an eightfold increase in HP's stock price during his time at the top from 1992 to 1999-putting him on par with IBM's (IBM) Lou Gerstner and GE's (GE) Jack Welch over the same timeframe, says Collins. "I'm not saying Platt stands toe-to-toe with those people, but he was a very underrated CEO," Collins says.

And many of Platt's accomplishments went beyond the financial reports. Born in Johnson City, N.Y., he quickly moved up the ranks after joining HP as an entry-level engineer in 1966 -- thanks in large part to the hard-working ways that earned him the nickname "class plugger" from high school classmates. Widowed early in his career and left with two young daughters to raise after his first wife died, he came to realize the difficulties faced by working women.

Platt built on the company's progressive heritage to make HP a place where female executives could thrive -- as Ann Livermore, one of HP's highest-ranking executives, former printer chief Carolyn Ticknor, and even Fiorina can attest. And Platt insisted that HP concern itself with such issues as community service, diversity in the workplace, and work-life balance, even when Wall Street wanted more focus on short-term results.

"DAMN GOOD BUSINESS SENSE." He was sometimes criticized for his focus on these issues by investors and some HP executives, who said the company needed a more cold-blooded competitiveness. But Platt took the long view, saying outfits that created environments where the best people wanted to work would prosper.

One of the few times I recall him getting angry was when I questioned him on his commitment to such "softer" management issues. "I think people who think that way are soft in the head!" he responded. "Almost every one of the practices that people look at as soft or nice come down to being damn good business sense."

Indeed, Platt was in many ways an embodiment of the so-called HP Way, a management philosophy built on respect for every individual and on the notion that people want to do their best -- and will, if given the right direction. Platt took to heart a desire to remain in sync with HP's rank-and-file.

NO GLOATING. He logged hundreds of thousands of miles a year on commercial airlines rather than the corporate jet, also making a point of eating in the cafeteria with the troops on a regular basis. It was "management by walking around," made famous by company founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, and it earned him respect, even from outsiders who disagreed with some of this decisions.

Not that Platt was any shrinking violet. He made himself heard when necessary. That included his last board meeting at HP, in November, 1999. Although he had been instrumental in hiring Fiorina, she stopped seeking his guidance just weeks after arriving from Lucent Technologies (LU). Platt suspected she was doing so with the board's blessing. And yet, when that meeting came around, he decided to share his growing concerns about the new CEO, knowing well that his fellow directors would consider it little more than the grousings of a has-been.

Turns out HP's board would have been well-served by heeding his advice. His concerns over Fiorina, including her propensity to over-promise and her difficulty in taking advice from others, ended up being critical factors in her ouster. Still, Platt refused to gloat. Contacted for comment about Fiorina's departure, he said: "Well, I suppose there's some vindication in it for me, but it's very hard to feel good about."

A BLESSING TO BOEING. There's been a great deal of vindication for Platt of late, as the business world has once again come to appreciate the brand of leadership he championed.

As chairman of the board at Boeing (BA), Platt earned accolades last year for his firm handling of a scandal involving then-CEO Harry Stonecipher. Although Platt had long been close with the top brass, he made the decision to fire his long-time colleague for breaking company rules relating to his relationship with a female executive. In the months that followed, Platt took a major role in restoring luster to Boeing's reputation, not to mention its stock price.

If there's an anecdote that sums Platt up for me, it's what happened at his HP farewell party in 1999. People who were there say that after all the tributes had been made and it was his turn to speak, Platt credited his predecessor, John Young, for making the tough decisions that led to HP's success during his tenure -- despite the fact that Young wasn't even present.

TOO FEW LIKE HIM. Then, Platt reflected on his legacy. "I'd like to be remembered as someone who related to people at all levels of the company, and related to them all equally well," he began. "I guess I've never been into the trappings of power. Maybe I should have."

No, Lew, it's better that you weren't. While big egos and business cycles come and go, the values Platt held dear are timeless, and should not be easily dismissed. Says Collins: "We need more, not fewer, Lew Platts in the world."

Burrows is a correspondent for BusinessWeek in San Mateo

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