With Hewlett-Packard now considering whether to fire CEO Leo Apotheker less than a year into the job and perhaps replace him with Meg Whitman, let’s take a look at what happened after it fired its last CEO, Mark Hurd. To refresh your memory, Hurd was ousted in the wake of a sexual harassment lawsuit. Within a month, Larry Ellison hired him to become Co-President of Oracle with Safra Catz. As the chart above illustrates, that was right about the time Oracle’s and HP’s stock performance diverged, with HP’s stock down about 50 percent.
Of course, many other factors contributed to each company’s performance, but it does raise the question of whether Hurd should have ever been fired in the first place. The sexual harassment claims were serious, but apparently not serious enough for Oracle to balk at naming him an officer of its company. Let’s set that thorny topic aside for a moment. Hurd, first and foremost, is an operator and a damn good one. He made a big strategic bet by buying Palm for its touch computing OS—a bet which may or may not have ever panned out, but at least it was a move which recognized the tectonic shift about to happen to the PC industry.
Hurd’s successor, Apotheker, barely gave the Palm acquisition a chance before throwing in the towel minutes into the first round. Instead, the former SAP CEO he wants to spin off or sell the PC business and go the IBM route and focus on the enterprise. Wall Street and customers don’t like that strategy. HP, after all, is the largest PC company in the world, and part of the appeal of buying from HP is that enterprises can get everything in a bundled sale, including PCs. HP’s stock has tanked since Apotheker signaled his new direction. Meanwhile, Oracle is killing it. Yesterday, Oracle announced that quarterly net profits are up 36 percent.
Apotheker was never the right person for the job. Maybe Meg Whitman can do better, although she’s been spending the past few years running for political office. She is also an HP board member since January so at least she wouldn’t be coming to the company blind. But talk about an interim CEO role suggests she might just steer the ship until the right replacement can be found.
Would HP ever consider bringing back Hurd? Probably not. That would just be an admission of idiocy on the part of the current board. If they felt that legally or ethically they had to fire him in the first place, those considerations would prevent them from re-hiring him. And Hurd may have no interest in taking the job after Apotheker messed up his plans. But at least he knew what he was doing, and by the looks of things at Oracle, he still knows what he is doing. Politics aside, HP could end up picking someone a lot worse.