Thrust into the national spotlight thanks to Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate, everything about Carly Fiorina is under the media’s microscope. Much has been said about Fiorina’s job record, particularly her tenure at Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina was fired from HP in 2005, a fact her opponents love to mention.
The Washington Post reported:
Fiorina got a taste of that new scrutiny before the debate had even ended Wednesday night. When her business record came under attack during the event, there was a spike in Google searches for “Carly Fiorina fired” and “Carly Fiorina fired why.”
Fact-checkers quickly challenged her familiar assertions that, under her leadership, HP “doubled the size of the company, we quadrupled its top-line growth rate, we quadrupled its cash flow, we tripled its rate of innovation.”
The main force driving the higher numbers was Fiorina’s decision in 2001 to merge HP with rival company Compaq. It was a controversial move — one that Dell founder Michael Dell dubbed “the dumbest deal of the decade” — and helped lead to her ouster.
There are also certain to be reminders of the 30,000 layoffs that occurred at HP on her watch. But none of this comes as a surprise to Fiorina, who clearly has been preparing for the onslaught and faced similar fire when she ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010 against incumbent Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
During the debate, Trump taunted her: “I only say this — she can’t run any of my companies. That I can tell you.”
Her rejoinder was to bring up the four times that Trump’s companies filed for bankruptcy: “You ran up mountains of debt, as well as losses, using other people’s money.”
As Justin Fox of Bloomberg Politics points out, that Fiorina wasn’t the best CEO in corporate history is simply fact.
But how much of what happened at HP was Fiorina and how much was reflective of the industry at the time?
Assessments of her 5 1/2 years in charge of tech giant Hewlett-Packard are everywhere these days, most of them negative. Fiorina herself offered a less-than-convincing defense in Wednesday night’s debate — yes, the company’s revenue doubled during her tenure, as she said, but that was mainly because she made a gigantic and controversial acquisition.
That $19 billion purchase of computer maker Compaq was the signature move of Fiorina’s time at HP. It occasioned a revolt led by HP director Walter Hewlett, son of company co-founder Bill Hewlett. It brought criticism from Wall Street and sniping from rivals. Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems called it “a slow-motion collision of two garbage trucks.” Michael Dell of Dell Computer said it was the “dumbest deal of the decade,” a doomed attempt to “copy IBM.”
Fiorina was trying to copy IBM, or at least give HP the scale and breadth to compete successfully for corporate clients against Big Blue. Before the Compaq deal (announced in 2001, completed in 2002), she made a run at PricewaterhouseCoopers’s consulting business, only to blanch at the $18 billion price tag. After the deal she got HP into information-technology services in a big way, running IT departments at Procter & Gamble and hundreds of other companies.
Bloomberg compared stock performance of HP with Sun, IBM, and Dell. The results are telling:
“So, no, Carly Fiorina was not the greatest CEO in corporate history. But she certainly wasn’t the worst, either,” wrote Fox.
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