Like Bill Clinton or Mick Jagger, Carly Fiorina has always had a way with audiences. And 15 months after being fired as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), she proved again on May 18 that she can seize and hold the attention of a crowd.
Addressing 400 booksellers and publishers at Book Expo America -- the vast book-publishing industry confab underway in Washington, D.C. -- Fiorina applied her trademark blend of glamour and intelligence to the topic "The Future of Publishing in the Digital Age." Camera crews from CBS's 60 Minutes and CSPAN's Book TV recorded her every word.
In fact, Fiorina was at the show to stimulate booksellers' appetites for her forthcoming memoir, Tough Choices, which Penguin Group will publish in early October. That book is under wraps with a formal embargo, and only a brief excerpt was distributed at the show. Nevertheless, amid various ruminations on the digital present and future, the fledgling book author provided a few hints about her forthcoming work.
"LEADER, NOT LAGGARD." "I'm now an author and did in fact write every word of this book," she said, expressing concern over the difficulty readers have of establishing authenticity in the Digital Age. She said she had two purposes in writing: First, the need to demystify business -- to show "how people actually behave, and how a leader can act to change peoples' results." Second, Fiorina said she realized press coverage of events had made her into a caricature, and she felt she could "present a more authentic portrait of myself."
Fiorina seemed to be claiming some credit for HP's current health. While she was in charge at HP, the company took the required risks and achieved a clearer focus on the "true value" it could offer customers, she said. "HP is now a leader, not a laggard," she announced. "We made the necessary changes."
Although she made no direct reference to the fact, the company recently reported a 51% jump in net income and a 4.6% sales increase for its fiscal second quarter and forecast improved profits for its current quarter. Mark Hurd, her replacement as chief executive, has received most of the credit for the turnaround (see BW Online, 5/18/06 "Stopping the Sprawl at HP"). Meanwhile, Dell DELL), one of HP's primary competitors, has been struggling mightily (see BW Online, 5/19/06, "From Servers to Service: Dell's Makeover").
THROWING SOFTBALLS. Most of Fiorina's remarks concerned the challenges posed to all businesses by technological innovation. She seemed to liken the current situation of book publishers to that of Eastman Kodak (EK), which within a six-year period saw the evaporation of its traditional film business. Kodak faces a challenge where "the brand may survive, but will the company survive?"
During a question and answer period, several audience members expressed admiration for the ex-CEO. One woman, who identified herself as a former advertising executive, voiced the hope that Fiorina's book would "give women an idea of what it is like to compete in a very bad world."
The excerpt that Fiorina's publisher distributed seems to fit that bill. It describes the author's experiences as a young sales team member at a unit of AT&T (T) that fulfilled federal contracts. In one vignette, a colleague arranges a business lunch at a strip club, where "between acts, the young women…would dress in completely see-through baby-doll negligees and dance on top of the tables while the patrons ate."
DIRTY LAUNDRY?. Fiorina insists on coming along, to the discomfort of all the males involved. "The next day in the office," she writes, "the balance of power had shifted perceptibly. I had shown…that I would not be intimidated, even if I was terrified."
But how much of the book is about HP -- and does the author intend to dish dirt about her former colleagues? "It covers my entire life and an appropriate percentage is about HP ," she told this reporter. "I didn't write it to settle scores. I have something to say, not something to prove." She added: "Some stories involving old colleagues are wonderful. And there are some that may be difficult for some people to read."