Hewlett-Packard Co. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman plans to stick by strategies set in motion by her predecessor, Leo Apotheker, betting that investors prefer steady leadership to another unsettling change of course.
Whitman, in her first interview as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, said the company stands by plans to acquire U.K. software marker Autonomy Corp. for $10.3 billion. The company also will continue to explore whether to sell or spin off the personal-computer division, she said. Those moves were announced on Aug. 18.
“It does not signal a change in the strategy,” Whitman said yesterday of her appointment. “We are behind the actions that were taken on Aug. 18. We are firmly committed to Autonomy.”
Whitman is hewing to those plans to avoid alienating shareholders who were fed up with the about-faces that characterized Apotheker’s reign. Still, Hewlett-Packard is overpaying for Autonomy and it shouldn’t have announced a possible PC unit sale without a concrete plan in place, said Chris Whitmore, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG.
“We’re going to get more of the same from a Meg Whitman-led HP as we did from a Leo-led HP,” said Whitmore, who is based in San Francisco and has a “sell” rating on Hewlett-Packard. “The board isn’t going to change the strategy and is going to continue down this path, which frankly was the fear.”
Hewlett-Packard’s shares fell 48 cents, or 2.1 percent, to $22.32 at 4 p.m. on the New York Stock Exchange, hitting the lowest price since May 2005. The stock had jumped 6.7 percent on Sept. 21 after Bloomberg reported that Apotheker would be ousted, evidence that shareholders were relieved to see his tenure end.
Apotheker, CEO for less than 11 months, was ousted yesterday after cutting sales forecasts three times and making strategy shifts that blindsided investors. Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard also said Chairman Ray Lane will become executive chairman.
Whitman’s challenge will be boosting revenue while assuaging the investors whose dismay fueled a 47 percent plunge in Hewlett-Packard stock under Apotheker. She said the company will decide the outcome of the PC business as soon as possible.
“We’ll make a decision as fast as we possibly can,” she said in the interview. “We understand uncertainty doesn’t help the business, doesn’t help customers, doesn’t help shareholders.”
Her experience at consumer-oriented companies such as EBay Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and Hasbro Inc. may leave her ill-equipped to run Hewlett-Packard’s business-computing divisions, said Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc. in San Francisco.
“She’s going to be heavily scrutinized,” said Wu, who has a “neutral” rating on the shares. “She doesn’t have the background to turn around HP.”
An estimated 25 percent of Hewlett-Packard’s sales come from consumers, Wu said. “What about the other 75 percent?”
Whitman defended her record at the helm of EBay.
“I have run a large company -- not obviously as large as HP, but I have run a very large company,” she said. “While I don’t have years of experience in an enterprise business, I bought a lot of software. I was one of the largest enterprise customers in Silicon Valley.”
“That’s like saying, ‘I’ve bought an iPhone, so I can run Apple Inc.” said Whitmore at Deutsche Bank.
Whitman will need to take Hewlett-Packard’s disparate operating groups -- including data-center computing gear, technology services, printers, and software -- and get them working as a team, Lane said in the interview. He also lauded Whitman’s ability to communicate company strategy.
“The market’s a little confused because we’re in so many different businesses,” he said. “This is 90 percent about leadership, communications and operating execution.”
Lane, who considered becoming the CEO himself, said Hewlett-Packard executives weren’t working well under Apotheker. To explain why the board picked an outsider, Lane said on a conference call that internal managers “were not ready” to become CEO.
Whitman, 55, is credited with helping build EBay into the world’s largest Internet auctioneer, with a market value of about $40 billion. She took the company public and built an online storefront that helped thousands of small businesses peddle their wares. Yet in her final years at EBay, she couldn’t reverse a slowdown in sales growth and overpaid for Skype Technologies SA after a bidding war with Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. EBay later wrote down Skype’s value.
Pressure on Apotheker
Whitman joined Hewlett-Packard’s board in January after a failed bid to become California’s governor last year. Before EBay, Whitman worked as an executive at the toy company Hasbro, the floral service FTD Inc., footwear maker Stride Rite Corp. and Walt Disney Co.
Hewlett-Packard had revenue of more than $126 billion in the past fiscal year, almost 14 times the size of EBay’s sales.
“It’s not clear to me that someone who spent 30 years in the consumer space is the right person for an enterprise technology company,” said Dana Stalder, a partner at venture-capital firm Matrix Partners in Palo Alto. Stalder worked under Whitman for seven years at EBay.
Pressure on Apotheker intensified when in August he announced the overhaul that included the Autonomy deal and possible spinoff. He also killed off the company’s WebOS tablets and smartphones, five months after vowing to put the operating system on a full range of the company’s computers.
Hewlett-Packard Chief Financial Officer Cathie Lesjak, who served as interim CEO before Apotheker, said yesterday on a conference call that the company was no longer confident in its fourth-quarter sales guidance. Hewlett-Packard is sticking by its profit forecast, she said.
The company said in August that fourth-quarter revenue would be $32.1 billion to $32.5 billion, with earnings of $1.12 to $1.16 a share, excluding some costs. According to Bloomberg data, analysts are predicting sales of $32.2 billion and profit of $1.14 for the period.
The board weighed whether to oust Apotheker for six to eight weeks, Lane said in the interview.
Apotheker stands to receive cash severance of at least $7.2 million, a figure that could be higher if his annual bonus was set above the minimum $2.4 million laid out in the employment agreement. Including his $1.1 million in salary received for the first year, along with a $4 million cash signing bonus and a $4.6 million relocation payment, Apotheker will have earned about $34.7 million in cash and stock for less than a year’s work.
‘Investors Wound Up’
“Not bad for a short-term job, unless you’re a HP shareholder,” said Brian Foley, a compensation consultant in White Plains, New York. “This is yet another ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard who does very well despite the circumstances.”
Apotheker joined Hewlett-Packard after Mark Hurd departed as CEO amid a scandal over a personal relationship with a company contractor. Hurd now is a co-president at Oracle.
A steady hand may be just what Hewlett-Packard needs, said Jayson Noland, an analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. in San Francisco. He has a “neutral” rating on the stock.
“The board is directionally behind the plan Apotheker’s put in place,” Noland said. “It’s just the execution of that plan that has investors wound up.”