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Backfire: Carly Fiorina's High-Stakes Battle for the Soul of Hewlett-Packard

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2003

    Compelling read, impressive research

    I still remember opening the newspaper during the proxy battle, and seeing that full-page ad that labeled Walter Hewlett as ¿an academic and musician¿. That cemented it for me. I wasn¿t even a shareholder and I was P-O¿d. I thought ¿Who could be so foolish as to make this kind of transparent personal attack?¿ The answer of course: The same folks who thought merging HP with Compaq was a masterstroke. It was far from the only gaffe by Carly¿s team. And Peter Burrows vividly details the key steps ¿ and mis-steps ¿ before and during one of the most expensive and divisive proxy battles in corporate history. At first, I thought ¿Backfire¿ was a pretty bold name for a chronicle of the merger fight. After all, the jury¿s still out on the ultimate fate of the merged entity. But the weight of the evidence confirms the author¿s thesis: Today, even with the bounce of the last few weeks, HP¿s stock is down 70% from its 2000 highs. That¿s far worse than the S&P 500, so the board can¿t blame the drop on the general market malaise. Since the announcement of the merger that was supposed to revolutionize HP and restore it to its glory days, the better part of $100 billion of shareholder value has been destroyed. And employee morale, as Burrows shows with a combination of solid stats and pointed anecdotes, seems to have been decimated. Indeed, key elements of the much-vaunted HP Way ¿ the collegial, egalitarian atmosphere, broad access to management, and decentralization of operations ¿ were trashed in the path of what could be called Carlita¿s Way (sorry, Al Pacino), or perhaps My Way or the Highway. Carly Fiorina is like a force of nature who seems to wield power more confidently than most heads of state (appropriate she spoke at Davos this past week). She¿s almost a larger-than-life figure, and people in her past seem to either worship or despise her. Not only is Burrows more than fair to Fiorina ¿ he really manages to humanize a woman who too often to the public seems like a one-dimensional, presentation-making, business-building machine. His chapter on her background is more than worth the price of the book by itself, for its vivid detail and its insights. At times, the depth of reportage is stunning. Burrows is a great name for this author because he really digs! His achievement is especially impressive considering that HP management, according to his Note about Sourcing, stopped taking his calls during the writing of the book. The book¿s greatest strength: It lays out just enough dots in just enough of a pattern to allow the reader to make all sorts of connections that wouldn¿t otherwise be possible. For instance, Fiorina¿s ex-husband retells a scene where Fiorina, having packed her bags after ten years of marriage, calmly and coldly informs him on their front lawn: ¿We will never speak to each other again¿. Just like that! Yikes! (And she¿s made good on that pledge). A few chapters later, Fiorina departs quite suddenly from a teetering Lucent, and issues an eerily similar ¿Good luck to ya, I¿m outta here¿-type remark to her team. Jeesh. While Burrows doesn¿t bop you over the head with this parallel, it¿s fascinating to observe this kind of ¿never look back¿ aspect to Fiorina¿s opportunism. If I may indulge in a little armchair psychologizing: Her ¿never look back¿ dynamic clashed headlong with the ¿honor the past, and remember where you came from¿ dynamic that informed the HP Way. It didn¿t take long for the proverbial chip to hit the fan: When Fiorina injected herself into a TV ad that used, as a prop, a mock-up of the original garage where the company was founded, David Packard fumed and most employees gasped at her brashness in co-opting the founders¿ story. This was one of several mini-backfires in Fiorina¿s reign, but the big one was her underestimation of Walter Hewlett, particularly his integrity and persistence in defending his father¿s legacy, and the degree to which HP¿s employees and

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