If you're still an investor in Hewlett Packard you must be new to this blog. But for those who remain optimistic, it is worth reveiwing why Ms. Whitman's forecast for HP yesterday won't happen. There are sound reasons why the company has lost 35% of its value since she took over as CEO, over 75% since just 2010 – and over $90B of value from its peak.
HP was dying before Whitman arrived
I recall my father pointing to a large elm tree when I was a boy and saying "that tree will be dead in under 2 years, we might as well cut it down now." "But it's huge, and has leaves" I said. "It doesn't look dead." "It's not dead yet, but the environmental wind damage has cost it too many branches, the changing creek direction created standing water rotting its roots, and neighboring trees have grown taking away its sunshine. That tree simply won't survive. I know it's more than 3 stories tall, with a giant trunk, and you can't tell it now – but it is already dead."
To teach me the lesson, he decided not to cut the tree. And the following spring it barely leafed out. By fall, it was clearly losing bark, and well into demise. We cut it for firewood.
Such is the situation at HP. Before she became CEO (but while she was a Director – so she doesn't escape culpability for the situation) previous leaders made bad decisions that pushed HP in the wrong direction:
- Carly Fiorina, alone, probably killed HP with the single decision to buy Compaq and gut the HP R&D budget to implement a cost-based, generic strategy for competing in Windows-based PCs. She sucked most of the money out of the wildly profitable printer business to subsidize the transition, and destroy any long-term HP value.
- Mark Hurd furthered this disaster by further investing in cost-cutting to promote "scale efficiencies" and price reductions in PCs. Instead of converting software products and data centers into profitable support products for clients shifting to software-as-a-service (SAAS) or cloud services he closed them – to "focus" on the stagnating, profit-eroding PC business.
- His ill-conceived notion of buying EDS to compete in traditional IT services long after the market had demonstrated a major shift offshore, and declining margins, created an $8B write-off last year; almost 60% of the purchase price. Giving HP another big, uncompetitive business unit in a lousy market.
- His purchase of Palm for $1.2B was a ridiculous price for a business that was once an early leader, but had nothing left to offer customers (sort of like RIM today.) HP used Palm to bring out a Touchpad tablet, but it was so late and lacking apps that the product was recalled from retailers after only 49 days. Another write-off.
- Leo Apotheker bought a small Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software company – only more than a decade after monster competitors Oracle, SAP and IBM had encircled the market. Further, customers are now looking past ERP for alternatives to the inflexible "enterprise apps" which hinder their ability to adjust quickly in today's rapidly changing marektplace. The ERP business is sure to shrink, not grow.
Whitman's "Turnaround Plan" simply won't work
Meg is projecting a classic "hockey stick" performance. She plans for revenues and profits to decline for another year or two, then magically start growing again in 3 years. There's a reason "hockey stick" projections don't happen. They imply the company is going to get a lot better, and competitors won't. And that's not how the world works.
Let's see, what will likely happen over the next 3 years from technology advances by industry leaders Apple, Android and others? They aren't standing still, and there's no reason to believe HP will suddenly develop some fantastic mojo to become a new product innovator, leapfrogging them for new markets.
- Meg's first action is cost cutting – to "fix" HP. Cutting 29,000 additional jobs won't fix anything. It just eliminates a bunch of potentially good idea generators who would like to grow the company. When Meg says this is sure to reduce the number of products, revenues and profits in 2013 we can believe that projection fully.
- Adding features like scanning and copying to printers will make no difference to sales. The proliferation of smart devices increasingly means people don't print. Just like we don't carry newspapers or magazines, we don't want to carry memos or presentations. The world is going digital (duh) and printing demand is not going to grow as we read things on smartphones and tablets instead of paper.
- HP is not going to chase the smartphone business. Although it is growing rapidly. Given how late HP is to market, this is probably not a bad idea. But it begs the question of how HP plans to grow.
- HP is going not going to exit PCs. Too bad. Maybe Lenovo or Dell would pay up for this dying business. Holding onto it will do HP no good, costing even more money when HP tries to remain competitive as sales fall and margins evaporate due to overcapacity leading to price wars.
- HP will launch a Windows8 tablet in January targeted at "enterprises." Given the success of the iPad, Samsung Galaxy and Amazon Kindle products exactly how HP will differentiate for enterprise success is far from clear. And entering the market so late, with an unproven operating system platform is betting the market on Microsoft making it a success. That is far, far from a low-risk bet. We could well see this new tablet about as successful as the ill-fated Touchpad.
- Ms. Whitman is betting HP's future (remember, 3 years from now) on "cloud" computing. Oh boy. That is sort of like when WalMart told us their future growth would be "China." She did not describe what HP was going to do differently, or far superior, to unseat companies already providing a raft of successful, growing, profitable cloud services. "Cloud" is not an untapped market, with companies like Oracle, IBM, VMWare, Salesforce.com, NetApp and EMC (not to mention Apple and Amazon) already well entrenched, investing heavily, launching new products and gathering customers.
HPs problems are far deeper than who is CEO
Ms. Whitman said that the biggest problem at HP has been executive turnover. That is not quite right. The problem is HP has had a string of really TERRIBLE CEOs that have moved the company in the wrong direction, invested horribly in outdated strategies, ignored market shifts and assumed that size alone would keep HP successful. In a bygone era all of them – from Carly Fiorina to Mark Hurd to Leo Apotheker – would have been flogged in the Palo Alto public center then placed in stocks so employees (former and current) could hurl fruit and vegetables, or shout obscenities, at them!
Unfortately, Ms. Whitman is sure to join this ignominious list. Her hockey stick projection will not occur; cannot given her strategy.
HP's only hope is to sell the PC business, radically de-invest in printers and move rapidly into entirely new markets. Like Steve Jobs did a dozen years ago when he cut Mac spending to invest in mobile technologies and transform Apple. Meg's faith in operational improvement, commitment to existing "enterprise" markets and Microsoft technology assures HP, and its investors, a decidedly unpleasant future.