Tuesday, August 23, 2011

HP's acts of desperation

Since last week’s huge news about HP I’ve been hoping to write something, but I was traveling and didn’t time to collect my thoughts. Even after five days, the news still doesn’t make sense, other than as the death throes (or at least mortally wounded throes) of a once-great giant.

Yes, HP has serious problems. It’s been unable to find a decent CEO since its founders (NB: Apple, Microsoft). Simultaneously chasing both Dell and IBM, it caught and passed Dell for a prize it no longer wants, while it seems unlikely to ever catch IBM (at least in my lifetime).

The HP board and CEO Léo Apotheker seem incapable of dealing with the current challenges. It has come to having HP’s chairman bad-mouthing Apotheker’s predecessor for “under-investment” in the core business.

But this is only the latest desperate effort in more than a decade of throwing one Hail Mary pass after another. Its $1.2b purchase of Palm and webOS was (as predicted) a major mistake. It allowed the (previously dying) Palm cellphone business to die, and meanwhile the efforts to establish the TouchPad as a viable iPad rival has failed miserably (much like RIM) with Best Buy selling less than 10% of those ordered and HP writing off $1 billion in losses on the webOS hardware business — most of that on the TouchPad.

Yes, a couple of things make sense from the announcements. Yes it’s time to cut the losses on the webOS acquisition (Perhaps claiming it has a future as a consumer embedded OS postpones the inevitable write-down, but competing against a no-royalty embedded Linux will be difficult at best.)

And at some level, the divorce of the low margin PC business from the potentially high margin software/services business has a business logic. Mark Hurd was the right man to run the commodity business while Apotheker prefers higher margin services, and neither was suited to run both together in a single company.

The problem is that the current HP is a conglomerate of the leading commodity PC maker, the leading (increasingly commoditized) printer maker, and a hodgepodge of largely second-tier software and services businesses.

Under Hurd, the company had embraced commoditization — executing on Carly’s Compaq acquisition and doing an exemplary job of competing in commodity markets. The only cost was the heart and soul of Bill and Dave’s company, ripping it out as the company shed workers, perks and the exemplary culture that once inspired Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Then the HP board panicked over Hurd’s poor judgement and forced him out, replacing the successful commodity numbers weenie with just the opposite: a software guy that was presiding over the dying SAP franchise. Apotheker had not solved SAP’s problems — coasting on the inertia of its once-invincible lock-in rents in the BPR segment — so he was rewarded with the reins of Silicon Valley’s oldest and most storied company.

A completely different CEO meant a completely different strategy, which in turn requires a different portfolio of businesses. (It also requires different competencies up and down the line, which the latest moves pointedly do not address.)

Even if exiting PCs now makes sense, as others have noted HP has completely bungled the planned PC spinout. IBM’s decision to sell its division came as a bolt from the blue with the buyer already announced. Apparently HP shopped the PC business and didn’t get its desired price, so now the uncertainty around the PC division (the born-again Compaq) will cause it to hemorrhage customers and market value until it’s finally dumped.

In the end, I have to lay the current problems on the board, which brought us the infamous spying scandal, melodrama over the last 3 CEO appointments and of course forcing out its best directors, Tom Perkins (of Kleiner Perkins fame) and George Keyworth. As Perkins noted in a 2007 video and his memoir, the board groupthink forced out any dissenting view — which (to further mangle metaphors) is a recipe for marching lockstep over a cliff.

Who’s on the board? Two insiders, three private equity investors, a failed startup technologist turned investor (Mark Andreessen), a former consumer products exec (Meg Whitman), execs of two failing telecom companies, the CEO of a successful software lock-in business, CEO of a major consulting company, chairman of a specialty chemicals business, and Larry Elison’s longtime sidekick (turned nemesis and Kleiner Perkins managing partner).

Oddly, while the board has exemplary gender diversity it lacks the obligatory university professor or president. I suspect Intel benefitted greatly from the advice of longtime director David Yoffie — even if I didn’t always agree with his analysis. (If HP goes looking for an academic, Tim Bresnahan of Stanford has understood the economics of platform businesses longer than anyone.)

Apparently I’m not the only one fed up with the HP board. After the 20% drop in HP stock Friday, fellow Seeking Alpha contributor Vitaliy Katsenelson wrote:

Anger and frustration are the two emotions pulsing through my veins as I write this. HP (HPQ), once the symbol of innovation, is being dismantled by its high-pedigreed board and the CEO of the hour. … [In] the early 2000s, when Carly Fiorina, then CEO of HP, engineered the HP merger with Compaq. … [N]ine years and two CEOs later HP has announced that the PC business, the one it so desperately wanted just a decade ago, is too hard a business and that it will look for ways to get rid of it. Almost in the same breath HP announced that it will kill WebOS devices, a business it acquired in April 2010 for $1 billion; and management, possibly missing the irony in those two announcements, went ahead and announced another acquisition, which this time will for sure transform the company.

I don’t need to have a great imagination to envision another conference call in August 2015, where a new CEO decides that the software business is too difficult, and HP needs to come back to its roots (maybe going back to making calculators) and will spin off the software business into a new company, take an enormous charge, and then maybe announce an acquisition that the same highly pedigreed board will rubber-stamp.

HP’s stock sold off not because the company disappointed Wall Street but because Wall Street grew tired of the overpriced “must-have” acquisitions. Wall Street has smartened up and assumed that this acquisition, as with many other “transformative” acquisitions, will do nothing of the sort.
I’d like to hope that HP will turn around some day, but I can’t see how to get there from here. It would require an entirely new board, one with more winners than losers and more big company operating experience. HP and its board are too big to be threatened with a hostile takeover, and so will muddle along — acquiring baubles with the shareholders’ checkbook — without a coherent long-term strategy or market niche.

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