Can Whitman blot HP's stained image?

Former eBay boss Meg Whitman is to replace Leo Apotheker as HP's CEO, fired just 11 months into the job.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 30 Sep 2011
After a turbulent few months for Hewlett-Packard, the US technology giant has announced another controversial change. It’s fired its CEO Leo Apotheker after just 11 months and replaced him with Meg Whitman.

The former eBay chief will now be HP’s new president and CEO after a shake-up of leadership. Among other changes on the board, Ray Lane has moved from non-executive chairman to executive chairman, and the board intends to appoint a lead independent director.

Whitman’s arrival comes after a number of mishaps. In 2006 it was revealed that HP had spied on directors and journalists to hunt down the source of leaks. And over the last year its shares have tumbled by more than 40% after Apotheker’s predecessor Mark Hurd resigned following a sexual harassment accusation. Apotheker has recently faced criticism for disappointing earnings, and also came under fire for the Autonomy takeover, with investors saying he overpaid for the firm.   

So Whitman has been brought in to overhaul the $120bn organisation and its 300,000 employees. HP once prided itself on being an engineers’ engineering company, but has been struggling for years to keep up with the changing market place. Nonetheless Whitman is perhaps an unusual choice, looking at her history. During her 10-year tenure at eBay she transformed the online auction site into a dot-com success, increasing revenue from $100m to $8bn. She also saw through a number of acquisitions – notably PayPal and Skype.

But while the takeover of PayPal was on the money, Skype was not. Three years after buying the internet phone service for $2.6bn, eBay reported its first quarterly loss since 1999 after a $900m write-down in the value of Skype. At the same time, growth also slowed across the site and shortly after Whitman quit.

She then decided to move into politics, but failed in her quest to become California governor. And it was an expensive defeat. Whitman lost nearly $150m of her own fortune - although considering her wealth is estimated to stand at $1.3bn that’s hardly likely to have broken the bank.

Whitman will now have her hands tied trying to repair the public image of troubled HP. But reactions in the tech world to her appointment have been pretty dire. In the New York Times, Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management offered the kindest comment: ‘It’s not a ridiculous choice. But they could have done better.’ But Charles House, a long-serving H.P. engineer and now chancellor of Cogswell Polytechnical College in Silicon Valley, put it more bluntly; calling Ms Whitman an ‘unmitigated disaster’ whose ‘style is so arrogant it gags.’

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