Photo: Cosmican via Flickr
Last week, Hewlett-Packard’s board of directors fired CEO Leo Apotheker after less than a year and replaced him with Meg Whitman.Board chairman Ray Lane tried to deflect criticism, pointing out that most of HP’s board wasn’t even there when Apotheker was hired.
He neglected to mention that he was one of Apotheker’s biggest public supporters, that the two men came aboard at the same time, and that Apotheker hand-picked at least 5 of the new board members.
As journalist Dan Lyons put it, Meg Whitman better watch her back.
But longtime tech industry watchers aren’t surprised by these developments — HP’s board of directors has been almost comically dysfunctional for the last decade.
Take a look….
In September 2001, HP announced plans to merge with Compaq to create a new $87 billion giant.
There was just one problem: board member Walter Hewlett, the son of cofounder Bill Hewlett, hated the idea. In December, he wrote a public letter to the board of directors urging them to reconsider, and later launched a proxy fight pledging to vote his family's stake against the merger.
But shareholders voted to approve the deal in March 2002, so Hewlett sued to get the vote overturned. A judge dismissed the suit. So he finally gave up.
Not surprisingly, the company didn't renominate him the next year.
Although it did make HP the biggest computer maker in the world, with more than $100 billion in annual revenue, the Compaq merger didn't create much short-term value for shareholders.
HP's stock dropped when the merger was announced in 2001, then remained more or less flat around $20 per share until CEO Carly Fiorina stepped down in early 2005.
But it did start a long slow rise between 2005 and 2008, leading at least one writer, former analyst and VC Ben Rosen, to call the merger a qualified success.
In January 2005, HP had a board meeting that apparently included some discussion of replacing Carly Fiorina. HP denied the report.
In September 2006, Newsweek reported that HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn had hired a team of security experts to figure out who had leaked a story about an HP strategy meeting to CNET. Those experts hired a team of private investigators who allegedly spied on board members and journalists.
The investigators apparently used a method known as 'pretexting,' where they posed as HP board members and journalists in order to get the phone company to release phone records.
Board member Tom Perkins -- one of Silicon Valley's biggest names and a member of the company since 1963 -- stepped down in May because of the spying. Initially, he didn't say why, but later he talked to Newsweek, which sparked the article and an SEC investigation.
Chairwoman Patricia Dunn stepped down a few weeks later, and CEO Hurd became the new chair. Board member George Keyworth, who was accused of being the leaker, also left.
The state of California filed criminal charges against Dunn and several others, but the cases were all eventually dismissed.
Under Mark Hurd, the company managed to cut expenses and grow revenues. The stock more than doubled under his watch.
Originally, the story was that Hurd was fired for sexual harassment.
Later, it turned out that he had falsified some expense reports related to a possibly inappropriate relationship with a contractor.
Ellison said that HP's board 'just made the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago.' A couple weeks later, he hired Ellison.
HP sued to try to stop Hurd from going to its arch-rival, but dropped the suit a few weeks later.
Amazingly, the board hired Apotheker without really getting to know him. One source told the New York Times that the board was so 'exhausted' over the Hurd affair, it hired Apotheker on the recommendation of four board members -- even though the other eight board members hadn't interviewed him.
Apotheker tried to explain HP's new strategy to the press in March, but the presentation was muddled and a lot of reporters missed the big message -- that HP was moving to cloud-based enterprise services.
In April, an Apotheker memo warning of a bad earnings report got leaked to the press, forcing the company to scramble and move its earnings report forward a few days.
Then, last month, HP surprised the world by abandoning the Palm hardware business, announcing that it might spin off its PC business, and buying enterprise search company Autonomy for more than $10 billion.
A lot of Silicon Valley's elite thought Whitman would be a ridiculous choice -- her track record at eBay wasn't so hot -- but the board went ahead and appointed her anyway.
Whitman kicked off her tenure by sending out an alarmingly bland email to all HP employees. The message seemed to be 'keep your heads down and stop worrying about your leadership -- it's all under control.'
Stay tuned. Surely there's more to come....
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