By Michelle Quinn
San Jose Mercury News.
The decision to split Hewlett-Packard will be the defining moment of Meg Whitman’s tenure at the storied company.
And in many ways it was classic Whitman.
Some tech leaders start company after company; others are managers of tech firms that are soaring. A few gain fame as turnaround artists who can breathe new life into fading icons.
Whitman may be in her own unique category. Throughout her career, she has been the steady hand at the wheel who is also willing to take big but measured risks.
“She is ultimately an MBA,” said M. Eric Johnson, dean of Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management and a former HP employee. “She is not reactionary. She is someone who studies something and then makes a big decision.”
The decision to cut HP in half is just the latest gamble in Whitman’s varied career.
With her business degree from Harvard, Whitman has worked for some of America’s best-known brands such as Procter & Gamble, Hasbro and The Walt Disney Co.
At eBay, she guided its bumpy, rocket ship growth, including a serious outage that could have crippled the company if not handled well. She also attempted to reshape the firm with giant acquisitions like PayPal, which went well, and Skype, which didn’t.
When Whitman stepped down, the company was an online auction powerhouse.
After 10 years as eBay’s CEO, she entered politics to help Mitt Romney, her friend and former boss at Bain & Co., in his unsuccessful 2008 bid to be president.
When he lost in the Republican primary, she became an adviser to Sen. John McCain in his presidential campaign. She spoke at the Republican convention and was floated as possibly a future Republican presidential contender.
Perhaps her biggest gamble was her own political foray, her 2010 unsuccessful California gubernatorial bid. Despite the outcome, her approach was classic Whitman: Carefully evaluate options and then take a big gamble.
It also illustrated how her business background shaped her race.
“eBay taught her a lot about looking to see what can be next,” said Rob Stutzman, a political consultant during Whitman’s governor’s race. “During the governor’s race, she had a grasp and vision for reorganizing government. She has the ability to see efficiencies in massive organizations.”
That likely attracted HP’s board. When Whitman took over HP in 2011, the company had been in the headlines mostly for corporate turmoil. Leo Apotheker had been ousted after 11 months over unhappiness about his strategic missteps. He had been brought in to stabilize the company after CEO Mark Hurd resigned following an investigation into his expense reports.
Whitman brought her no-drama managerial expertise to rebuild confidence with HP’s investors, employees, customers and partners, observers say.
Whitman rejected the idea of breaking up HP when she first joined the firm and repeated her commitment to a unified HP again last year.
But then she changed her mind, which is really not surprising, given her history.
“Decisions of this magnitude are not something she goes into lightly,” said Maynard Webb, the former chief operating officer at eBay and a longtime technology executive. “She addresses problems head-on and is always willing to take educated risks that she believes to be in the best interest of both the customer and the company.”
It is an understatement to say that HP has been through a lot, buffeted by macho CEOs and romantic nostalgia for what it once was, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for Yale University’s executive programs.
But this could be the gamble that restores some of the company’s glory.
“It’s a brilliant move for Meg,” he said. “Instead of standing between these two moving trains, she is allowing them to go their own separate ways.”