Five outsiders who could lead Hewlett-Packard

If Meg Whitman doesn't work out, Marc Benioff, Steve Mills, Charles Phillips or even Mark Hurd come to mind as candidates

Having gone through a rash of CEOs in the past 10 to 15 years, Hewlett-Packard may soon find itself looking for yet another new chief, despite just tapping Meg Whitman for that job this week.HP's announcement Thursday of board member Whitman as its insider choice to replace Leo Apotheker after less than a year came under fire from some who believe that the company should have named an interim leader and conducted an executive search. "We would view any decision not to conduct a comprehensive search of internal and external candidates for a permanent CEO role as unsatisfactory and unnecessarily hasty," analyst firm Sanford Bernstein wrote in a research note this week before Whitman was named. "We also believe that shareholder reaction to Whitman as a permanent CEO would be mixed."

HP decided against conducting an outside search because it wasn't necessary, board Executive Chairman Ray Lane said Thursday. But having just conducted the search for Apotheker, HP still had a good idea of who was available and "if we thought there was a better choice on the outside, we would have conducted [a new] search," Lane said.

But if Whitman doesn't last, here's a look at some potential outside CEO candidates HP could pursue down the road:

1. Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive, software and systems, IBM.

Mills' name came up regularly as a potential HP CEO after Hurd left the company. In addition, he would bring broad-based experience to HP thanks to his current role, where he oversees IBM's software and hardware strategy and manages more than 100,000 employees.

Mills was also at IBM in the 1990s, when the company went through a similar transition as HP is going through now, said Frank Scavo, managing partner of IT strategy consulting firm Strativa.

On the minus side, Mills wasn't CEO at the time, Scavo said. "He didn't lead that, he participated, but it's still an interesting choice."

In addition, Mills only gained control of IBM's hardware business last year, giving him less experience in that arena than software.

This aside, "Steve is definitely CEO material," said analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research.

"He's actually one of the best managers in the business. He's managed their mergers and acquisition strategy and has done a good job of aligning those with industries and back to services," Wang added.

However, "I don't know if it's likely for him to go to HP," Wang said. "They'd have to try really hard to bring him aboard, given they've been fierce competitors."

2. Marc Benioff, CEO, Salesforce.com

The outspoken and flamboyant Benioff "really is a tech visionary," said Forrester Research analyst Paul Hamerman. "Salesforce.com is one of the most innovative companies from a technical standpoint." In addition, "he's a great communicator," Hamerman said.

Salesforce.com, known for its array of cloud-based software, has experienced dramatic growth but its profits remain relatively small compared to revenue. That's not necessarily a knock against Benioff, given that Salesforce.com is still "investing in growth initiatives," Hamerman said.

But there are some factors going against Benioff as head of HP, namely the fact that he likely couldn't be lured by money given his already substantial net worth, Hamerman added.

Moreover, "he's had no experience with [HP's] kind of problem," Scavo said. "He's an entrepreneur. HP is the antithesis of a startup. He's good at a lot of things, but he's never been through something like this."

"Marc would be a great addition just in terms of vision and morale and the ability to attract talent in the Valley," Wang said. And money may not be a motivator for Benioff.

"This is about the challenge, making the transformation," he said. "I don't know if he would want that challenge, but an acquisition of Salesforce.com would bring him aboard."

3. Charles Phillips, CEO, Infor, and a former Oracle co-president.

Phillips is known for his cool, crisp demeanor and his role in architecting Oracle's vast array of acquisitions. And as a former financial analyst, he is "highly credible with the investment community," Scavo said. "HP could certainly use someone credible at the top."

He left Oracle last year under what are understood to be generally agreeable terms, despite a scandal involving billboards around the U.S. that bore romantic photos of Phillips and a woman to whom he was not married. Phillips later confirmed that he and the woman had a "serious relationship," which he said had ended.

Phillips has long since moved on from that episode and spent the past year or so launching a reinvention of Infor's software portfolio and continuing his yen for acquisitions with the purchase of Lawson Software.

While Infor is the third-largest ERP (enterprise resource planning) software vendor after SAP and Oracle, it's no HP in terms of prominence. For an executive like Phillips, whose name was cast about at times as a potential successor to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison , the top job at HP may be a tempting prize.

But while Phillips may know business software inside and out, he only had a short time to get acquainted with hardware after Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in early 2010. That may be a problem for him as CEO of HP, which still derives only a tiny percentage of revenue from software.

"He's a software executive, and HP is not a software company," Hamerman said.

But Wang held a different view, saying HP would likely be in solid hands from an operational standpoint with Phillips at the helm. "Charles is the executor."

4. Bill McDermott, co-CEO of SAP.

SAP-co CEO Bill McDermott presents in his regular public appearances the type of controlled, smooth confidence that HP could use in a leader right now.

He's also considered by experts to be one of the industry's top salesmen, focusing on that aspect of SAP's business while his co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe handles the technology end of things.

"If anything, he'd be able to improve the customer relationships," Wang said.

Hamerman echoed the notion. "I think he's a great spokesman for SAP. He projects the kind of communication skills and persona that Leo didn't have."

"On the other hand he's not a tech visionary," Hamerman said. "That's not what SAP wants him to do. His role is to focus on customer relationships and being an articulate spokesman. Right now HP needs a tech visionary and he's not the guy."

In addition, McDermott lacks experience in hardware, and actually makes a habit of saying publicly how disinterested SAP is in getting into that business directly. It's not clear how investors would react to him being chosen to lead the hardware-centric HP.

5. Mark Hurd, co-president of Oracle.

Yes, the same Mark Hurd who was ousted as HP CEO after a scandal involving his relationship a with a company contractor, and ended up quickly grabbing a job as co-president of Oracle.

On the plus side, "he knows HP inside and out, and from the financial side he already turned it around [as CEO there]," Scavo said.

But morale at HP was said to suffer under Hurd's watch. And obviously, he "doesn't have the best relationship with HP's board," Scavo said.

Not to mention that going back to HP would certainly constitute a betrayal of Hurd's close friend, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who famously defended Hurd and slammed the HP board after his firing.

Truth be told, anybody wanting Hurd back in the fold at HP is probably dreaming, according to Hamerman.

"[The HP board] made a big mess out of something they could have kept quiet, and embarrassed themselves in the process," he said. "They shouldn't have rocked the boat. But there's no chance he'll go back. That bridge is burned."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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