2016 election

The Carly Fiorina teardown begins as '16 race heats up

Fiorina sees her leadership at HP as a key reason for electing her president, but her record is mixed

050415 carly fiorina presidential layoffs hp
Credit: REUTERS/Jim Young

Carly Fiorina has been described as flamboyant, bold, polarizing, decisive, imperious and unqualified. Her six-year tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard ended with her forced resignation, something that's not helpful as she begins a presidential run.

If Fiorina's bid for the Republican nomination, announced on Monday, registers more than a single digit in the polls, her tenure at HP will be scrutinized -- as will her exit. (Though she might be able to explain the latter away.)

[ See also: #Fail to the chief: When tech trips up presidential candidates ]

Fiorina, who ran HP from 1999 to 2006, was ousted by one of the most dysfunctional corporate boards in post-dot-com bubble America. Not a year after she was dismissed, the board got caught up in the "pre-texting" scandal. Pre-texting was the term used for trying to obtain telephone records of HP board members and reporters to determine corporate leaks. And that was before the board hired and fired former HP CEO Leo Apotheker in the span of a year.

Fiorina herself has put her performance at HP as central to understanding how she might run the country. She has little choice but to make her corporate leadership a key reason for electing her president.

Her only real experience as a political candidate came in 2010, when she was the Republican nominee for Senate against incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Fiorina lost with 42% of the vote to Boxer's 52%.

On the Carly for President website, Fiorina describes her role at HP in heroic terms, saying she's someone who "faced headwinds from people who did not want to see HP change. They wanted to double-down on a flawed agenda that simply wasn't sustainable against the new challenges of the 21st Century. Our nation faces the same problem today...."

Much analysis will likely focus on Compaq, the $25 billion acquisition in 2001 that gave HP a sizeable PC business as well as number of enterprise legacy systems.

Describing Fiorina's "time at HP in triumphal terms requires some serious rewriting of history, but that sort of process is fairly common among the seriously and serially ambitious," said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT.

The Compaq deal allowed HP to become the undisputed leader in PC sales for several years, but faltered otherwise, said King. That was partly because HP's leadership, including Fiorina, "either denied or ignored the central challenge [of] blending corporate cultures," resulting in thousands of layoffs.

But Rob Enderle, of the Enderle Group, believes that Fiorina set a strong direction for HP that predecessor HP CEO Mark Hurd "continued with very little change." It could be argued that Hurd's success was largely due to Fiorina's strategy, he said.

He noted that the Compaq merger, when first proposed, faced a proxy fight from HP founders -- "a painful political process" that she won. "She successfully executed one of the largest and most complex mergers ever," Enderle said.

Another place for clues to Fiorina's leadership could be the decisions around the HP e3000, a mid-range system that was widely regarded for its durability and reliability. To the shock of users, HP in 2001 announced that the HP e3000 was being discontinued.

It was not the right decision, said Ron Seybold, who heads The 3000 Newswire. "'If it isn't growing, then it's going' were her marching orders after buying Compaq," said Seybold. He argued that the system was smal,l but profitable.

In his mind, that decision proved "she wasn't looking any farther ahead than tomorrow's earnings reports."

This story, "The Carly Fiorina teardown begins as '16 race heats up" was originally published by Computerworld.

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