Compared with her predecessors, "Meg is doing a better job of getting out there and being accessible," said McKinney, the former HP executive, who decided to leave after Apotheker's August announcement. But the company is still seeing an exodus of talented workers, he warned.
Some breathing room
Whitman often describes HP's troubles in jargon that hints at her early training as a Harvard MBA and Bain management consultant. In her words, HP's challenges fall in three "buckets." The first represents operational issues, like the supply chain failings that allowed PC and server sales to suffer this winter after flooding in Thailand interrupted production of essential disk drives.
The second bucket, according to Whitman, contains specific threats to HP's major divisions: PC sales are slowing as more people buy smartphones and tablets. The high-profit ink business is slipping as customers store photos on Facebook instead of printing them at home. HP is selling fewer high-end servers after archrival Oracle (ORCL) stopped making software for those systems. And the services group, which does tech work for other companies, lacks resources and loses lucrative jobs to IBM.
Whitman's "third bucket" consists of broader trends, such as the rise of online services and cloud computing. These are changing how customers use HP products, she says, but they offer new business opportunities such as helping clients protect and manage data.
After listing all those challenges for analysts last month, Whitman assured them HP is up to the task. "We see a once-in-a-generation chance to define the future of technology and position HP as a leader for decades to come," she said.
But Whitman also warned that HP won't see a return to growth before the end of 2013. "She's making some smart moves," said a former HP board member. "Setting low expectations will give them breathing room to restore the brand."
As she embarks on that effort, Whitman must wrestle with her predecessors' legacy.
Former CEO Mark Hurd, who ran the company from 2005 to 2010, built HP to its current size while earning Wall Street adoration for focusing relentlessly on the bottom line. He was ousted in a scandal after the company said it found expense account irregularities involving meals with a former B-movie actress turned HP marketing contractor, which then sparked a flurry of shareholder lawsuits. Whitman has blamed some of HP's problems on excessive cost-cutting during Hurd's tenure, especially in research and development.
"We didn't make the investments we should have during the past few years, to stay ahead of customer expectations and market trends," she told analysts. "As a result, we see eroding revenue and profits today."
Apotheker, for his part, tried to move from HP's roots in computer hardware by focusing on software. Analysts say the goal was rational, since software is more profitable, but his execution was clumsy. Whitman has distanced herself from Apotheker, but says HP will enhance its hardware business by selling software too.
While she's vowed to increase R&D spending, Whitman has told Wall Street she won't sacrifice profitability. She has said HP will cut costs in other areas, prompting speculation that layoffs are coming -- although she hasn't used that word.
Whitman has said she'll achieve savings by updating the systems HP uses to manage operations, reducing the number of versions of HP products, and consolidating sales efforts that now reside in each division.
Calm under fire
That wasn't enough for restless investors. After inching upward last fall, HP's stock plunged in the days after last month's weak quarterly report, subsiding to nearly last year's lows.
"HP shareholders deserve a concrete and detailed plan," complained Deutsche Bank analyst Chris Whitmore in a research note. He said Whitman has not yet offered "visibility on whether HP can reach sustainable growth."
But Whitman, who took heat for missteps during her novice political campaign, says the experience taught her to stay calm under fire. "We are building HP to last," she said recently, "not managing for short-term objectives."
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