Business Hewlett-Packard Board game
商业 惠普 董事会的游戏
More turmoil at the top of the world's biggest tech firm
A FEW months after Léo Apotheker, the former boss of SAP, a German software firm, took over as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard (HP), he joked that he had learned to say "awesome" like a Californian following his move from Europe to Palo Alto. Unfortunately for Mr Apotheker, that is not an adjective that many of HP's investors and board members would apply to his leadership. Rightly or wrongly, they have become disillusioned with him. As The Economist went to press, speculation was swirling that he would soon be ousted as chief executive, less than a year after his arrival.
Whatever happens, the saga is another blow for a company that has lurched from one boardroom crisis to another. Mr Apotheker took the wheel at HP in November 2010 following the departure of Mark Hurd, who left abruptly amid stories of sexual indiscretions and problematic expense-reporting. Mr Hurd had taken over from Carly Fiorina, who was binned in 2005 after the firm's profits plunged. A year later Patricia Dunn, HP's then chairman, also departed after a scandal involving an investigation into suspected press leaks from HP directors.
Repeated ructions at the top are harmful for any firm. But they have been devastating at HP, which faces brilliant competitors such as Apple in the hardware business and IBM in enterprise software and services. Mr Apotheker is partly to blame for the fact that the firm has been reluctant to follow his leadership. But so, too, is the board, which seems uncertain about what kind of leader HP needs.
A couple of things appear to have brought matters to a head. Since his arrival, Mr Apotheker has had to lower HP's revenue forecasts three times (see chart). In part, this reflects slower-than-expected growth in the personal-computer (PC) market, of which HP has a larger share than any other firm. HP's critics, however, claim that its boss has not done enough to arrest the sales slide, which has dented its share price.
Some board members also believe Mr Apotheker has failed to win broad support within HP. One person familiar with the board's deliberations employs a medical analogy, likening Mr Apotheker to "a perfectly good organ" that simply has not worked when transplanted to a very different body. Asked for a response, HP refused to comment on speculation.
It seems to be these issues, rather than any broad disagreement on strategy, that have caused friction between HP's chief executive and its board. Directors are said to support Mr Apotheker's public musing about whether or not to sell the company's PC business. They also approve, it is said, of his whopping $10.3 billion bid for Autonomy, a British firm whose software helps companies sift through mountains of e-mails and other data. Investors are less sure: HP's shares dropped 20% on the day the deal and a possible spin-off of its PC business were announced.
HP is unlikely to back out of buying Autonomy now, whatever happens to Mr Apotheker, not least because it is determined to grow in high-margin software businesses. More than two-fifths of Autonomy's shareholders have already accepted HP's bid and British rules would make it hard to pull out of the deal.
Either a weakened Mr Apotheker will have to do a better job of selling these moves to the market, or that job will fall to his successor. If the board does push for his departure, one possible candidate for his job could be Meg Whitman, the former boss of eBay and an HP director. Ms Whitman is also an adviser to Kleiner Perkins, a venture firm where Ray Lane, HP's chairman, is a partner.
Investors seem to think that an Apotheker-less HP would be better off: the company's share price rose almost 7% on September 21st after news of a potential defenestration leaked out. But it is not clear that someone such as Ms Whitman, who comes from a consumer-internet background, would be an ideal successor at a company that does a lot of its business with other corporations.
Whatever happens, Mr Lane and the rest of HP's board will find themselves under the spotlight. "Is Léo the problem, or is he just a symptom of an underlying problem?" muses Chris Whitmore, an analyst at Deutsche Bank. HP's shareholders should perhaps be asking themselves the same question.