New face, same challenges at HP

HP has put the rumors to rest by replacing CEO Léo Apotheker with Meg Whitman, but the big questions swirling around the company are anything but resolved.

The world might have given Apotheker the benefit of the doubt for not growing revenue during his 11 months in office, but it was the flip flopping that was deadly, that signaled to the world HP is adrift.

We're spinning off the PC business. Uhhh, maybe not.

WebOS is the future and we'll ship it on all devices. We're killing it.

Our tablet rules. It is dead. Oh, we're making more to sell. No, it's really dead.

And the parade of CEOs actually just accentuates the idea that the company is desperately trying to find its way. HP had four CEOs for the first 86 years of its existence and, with the appointment of Whitman, six in the last 12 years (see a listing of CEOs).

Under Apotheker, HP's stated goal was to "move HP into higher value, higher margin growth categories," and it would be surprising if that isn't Whitman's mandate as well. This is, after all, what IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano has done so successfully at Big Blue over the last nine years, shifting the company's focus to software and services.

Today, according to Yahoo Finance, IBM's revenue of $104 billion (on a trailing 12 month basis) is 23% less than HP's, yet IBM's net income of $15 billion is 66% greater. Looked at another way: HP is generating a 7% margin while IBM is up at 14%.

What gets lost in all of the change at HP is the fact that the company is actually realizing fruits of earlier efforts to focus on higher margin businesses. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, HP's service business, built on the acquisition of EDS in 2008, represented 28% of revenue and generated a respectable 13.5% return. That's second only to the Personal Systems Group which represented 31% of sales.

While HP's software business is also high margin (19% in the third quarter) and growing (up 14% in the first three quarters of this year compared to last), it accounts for less than 3% of revenue. It will take a lot more than the addition of Autonomy (the software company HP plans to buy for $10 billion) to bolster this side of the house.

So Whitman will have her work cut out for her, not the least of which is establishing what HP stands for. The company's current focus on "Instant on", which it came out with last spring, doesn't cut it. In a world where information is the business currency, when is a corporation ever off?

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "New face, same challenges at HP" was originally published by Network World.

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