Fiorina bad, Hurd good: HP prospers

Hurd's worked wonders for the venerable vendor, says Steven Duplessie

A Canadian reader recently asked me “What’s happening with HP these days? Are they back for real?”

My reply is not only are they back, they’re back with a vengeance. This little fiasco with the board spying on other board members is the only blemish on what has been a stellar inauguration of new chief executive Mark Hurd — and I don’t blame him for that at all, as he inherited a dysfunctional board from way back.

A year ago, HP was in the dumps. For the previous few years Carly Fiorina spent more time acquiring corporate jets and hanging with celebrities in order to boost her own image than doing anything to turn an old, stodgy, boring HP around. I loved watching her on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago taking credit for the HP renaissance and trying to steal Hurd’s thunder by suggesting it was her plans now delivering success and Hurd was really just along for the ride.

Fiorina was a superb self-promoter who kept the company (and herself) in the limelight while products got old, the sales force got lazy, and market share plummeted all over the place. Hurd looks like he’d rather spend time as a paid proctology school practice dummy than deal with the media. That seems to be working, though, because in the last quarter HP overtook Dell in the PC space, its storage division is showing more energy and enthusiasm then ever before, the services business is generating new (and very large) opportunities worldwide, and the little printer business they have seems to finally be catching on! All in all, there isn’t much that isn’t heading the right way at HP these days.

Does Hurd get all the credit? No, but he sure has set a new course at HP. Accountability exists now — what a concept! He has done some very un-HP like things that have rejuvenated the place, such as pulling the trigger on acquisitions in days, as opposed to months or years. Once the acquisitions are complete, Hurd keeps the people that he got with the buyouts to infuse new life and skills into HP in order to shake up the status quo.

It remains to be seen if giant buys such as Mercury Interactive will pan out, but it looks good so far and we’ll see how the integration goes. In storage, HP has tended to buy for technology, letting the smart people who were acquired run away with their cash and the ideas that got them where they were. Now, not only does HP embrace the entrepreneurs it swallows up, it promotes them. Case in point: Ash Ashutosh, the founder of AppIQ, is now HP’s storage CTO. Duncan Campbell, the storage vice president of marketing, is a smart, interesting guy who has a sense of humour (which was once considered a character flaw inside HP). I think we may actually see HP start to tell us all how well they are doing! Did you see their little sub-US$5,000 uber array that speaks SAN or NAS, and automatically backs itself up? It has piles of cool stuff built right into it — and that’s just the kind of thing that we’ll hopefully see permeating the rest of HP’s lineup.

So, if nothing else, this little diatribe should prove my own personal mental flexibility. I trashed HP all over the place over the last three-plus years for losing the formula that made them the undisputed dominant force in mid-range storage.

Now, I’m glad to say, they are back, and they look better than ever. I don’t hold a grudge, but I never forget either. Sun has replaced HP as the new “king of companies with huge install bases that are almost impossible to screw up but somehow make really bad decisions and refuse to change a culture that worked ten years ago but now makes them look like they are vying for the boneyard”.

Perhaps the Sun folks should pay attention to what HP’s been able to pull off by nuking the sacred cows and challenging the previously accepted assumptions.

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