Meg Whitman took the helm as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) after her two predecessors were ousted amid scandal, lawsuits and controversial strategic moves. Six months later, she's credited with making swift decisions that steered the company through that storm.
She settled a paralyzing debate over HP's $40 billion personal computer business and, in a nod to Silicon Valley culture, moved top executives out of their offices and into cubicles instead.
But HP's vast tech business is still threatened on numerous fronts as it struggles to keep pace with competitive
trends and innovations, from Apple's (AAPL) iPad to the rise of cloud computing. And with the future of a Silicon Valley icon at stake, many HP insiders, competitors and industry observers say Whitman faces tremendous challenges in trying to get the company back on track.
"She's in a tough spot," said Charles King, a veteran tech analyst with the Pund-IT firm. "It isn't going to be an easy job."
"She needs a rallying cry that people can get behind," added former HP vice president Phil McKinney, who left the company last year.
The 55-year-old Whitman came to HP with a
reputation for management expertise. She held top jobs at Hasbro, Stride Rite and Walt Disney before overseeing eBay's (EBAY) tremendous growth as CEO of the online auction company from 1998 to 2008. That's where she earned the personal fortune that helped finance an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010.
At HP, her immediate challenge was obvious: "We have been working hard," she told Wall Street analysts on a conference call, "to calm the waters and reassure our stakeholders that HP is the same reliable company that they've known and admired for years."
But experts say the size and breadth of HP's business is both an asset and a challenge for any CEO. With $126 billion in annual sales and nearly 350,000 workers, HP is a market leader in more industry segments -- from PCs and printers to big computer systems and tech services -- than any of its competitors.
"A lot of investors say they are more comfortable with Meg there than they were with Leo," said Baird & Co. analyst Jayson Noland, referring to previous CEO Leo Apotheker. "But it seems like she's still getting her arms around the problems. She hasn't articulated a clear strategy yet."
A quiet transformation
Whitman, who joined HP's board in January 2011, stepped into the chief executive's job on Sept. 22 when Apotheker was fired for weak financial performance and strategic missteps.
Apotheker, who held the job for less than a year, rocked the tech industry last August by announcing that HP, the world's biggest seller of PCs, would launch a months-long review of whether to get out of that business. The board, including Whitman, had approved that review. But after critics savaged HP for placing one of its major divisions in limbo, new CEO Whitman sped up the analysis and quickly decided to keep the PC operation.
Whitman has avoided further drama since then. She's quietly replaced executives in important behind-the-scenes jobs, overseeing corporate strategy, communications and legal matters. But she retained the more visible, longtime heads of HP's major divisions, such as PC chief Todd Bradley and printing boss Vyomesh Joshi.
And as the new boss, Whitman moved herself and other executives into cubicles at HP's Palo Alto headquarters, saying she wanted to foster teamwork and send a message to employees. She's held "coffee talks" and explained key decisions in companywide emails. Insiders say that's boosted sagging morale.
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