Walter Hewlett could give HP its Steve Jobs moment

September 8, 2010

Oracle boss Larry Ellison may have given Hewlett-Packard some brilliant advice. Before snatching Mark Hurd to help run his software company this week, Ellison compared the board’s decision to part ways with the HP CEO as “the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs.”

Extend Ellison’s logic, and Apple could provide a sort-of blueprint for getting HP back on track. After Jobs lost a power struggle at the company he founded, Apple brought him back about a decade later. It could be time for HP’s own Jobsian moment.

The company letterhead provides the inspiration. Bill Hewlett and David Packard met while undergrads at Stanford and built their first product, a resistance-capacitance audio oscillator, out of a Palo Alto garage with initial capital of $538. Trouble is, both men are deceased.

There is still a good related option: Hewlett’s son Walter. He’s founder of the Center for Computer Assisted Research in the Humanities at Stanford, and a proven and capable technologist. He has displayed remarkably good business judgment and a passion for his father’s company.

Hewlett led a 2002 shareholder campaign against then-CEO Carly Fiorina and her $24 billion Compaq takeover. That deal, as Hewlett rightly predicted, plunged HP further into the commoditized PC business and dampened margins, ultimately leading to Fiorina’s departure and Hurd’s appointment.

Now, HP’s board needs a major shakeup. It had already shown dubious judgment over a witch-hunt to uncover information leaks. Now it has overreacted to “l’affaire Hurd,” and compounded the error by failing to ensure his departure wouldn’t hurt the company. A rearguard legal effort to restrain Hurd comes too late: the stock has lost $17.5 billion of value since he resigned. By contrast, Oracle’s is unchanged.

Hewlett is no operations man, and his HP tenure ended bitterly. But he’s an experienced corporate director, knows the company and, above all, carries with him the spirit of invention and enterprise — the very essence of Silicon Valley’s past half-century — which inspired the company’s founders. It’s hard to see better qualities for a new chairman.

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