Carleton S. Fiorina became the most powerful woman in business as an executive with Lucent Technologies in the late 1990s, but she was launched into celebrity CEO status when she took over the top job at storied-but-faltering Hewlett-Packard in 1999. Fiorina was the first outsider to be chief executive at HP, and she was the first woman to take the helm of a company in the Dow 30. Just as “Hillary” was enough to identify the First Lady, “Carly” quickly became enough to identify the top woman in the world of business and technology.
If that job helped Fiorina become a star in Corporate America and a familiar name to many outside of it, her record at HP has left plenty of room for critics — and there are plenty of those, too — to challenge her claims of offering “real leadership.”
Now that Fiorina, 60, has announced that she is running for president and her campaign website, carlyforpresident.com, attempts to draw parallels between the state of HP when she arrived and the state of the country today, it’s worth looking at just what the former CEO accomplished.
Fiorina’s website touts her rise from “a secretary for a small real estate business” to the first woman to lead a company in the top 50 of the Fortune 500, and it labels her “a problem solver with a track record to prove it.” The site calls out the financial results HP generated under Fiorina, like doubling revenue and rising from the 28th-largest company in the U.S. to the 11th-largest.
“Carly didn’t always make the most popular decisions at HP — but, time and time again, they would prove to be the right ones,” the website says.
A decade after her departure from HP, her legacy is far more questionable than that line suggests. By the time she was forced out of HP after 5 1/2 tumultuous years — and one long, bruising proxy battle to cement the ultimately unsuccessful mega-merger with Compaq Computer — HP’s shares were worth less than half what they had been when she took over. A devastating 2005 analysis by Fortune’s Carol Loomis concluded that Fiorina’s merger with Compaq had failed to deliver value for shareholders and failed to position HP to compete better in a rapidly evolving tech world.
“This was a big bet that didn't pay off, that didn't even come close to attaining what Fiorina and HP's board said was in store,” Loomis wrote. And a competing website that Fiorina’s camp neglected to register — CarlyFiorina.org — on Monday featured row after row of frown-face emoticons to represent the 30,000 people Fiorina laid off in her time at HP.
Fiorina and others have argued that she laid the groundwork for some of HP’s progress under her successors and that she shook up a hidebound culture that needed to be remade to compete in the Internet Age. "Carly was brought in to catalyze a transformation of HP. She did that in a remarkable fashion," Patricia Dunn, the HP board member who would become the company’s chairwoman after Fiorina’s ouster, said at the time. "Looking forward, we think the job is very reliant on hands-on execution, and we thought a new set of capabilities was called for."
HP has since had five CEOs, and it’s arguably still looking for the right path forward. Fiorina had reportedly told analysts in 2004 that the company had considered splitting up into parts on three different occasions and rejected the idea each time. Last year — a decade later — HP under CEO Meg Whitman announced it would split HP into two companies, one for enterprise and services businesses and the other for its PC and printers lines. Whether that decision succeeds or not, it illustrates that the legendary company’s problems and lack of strategic direction went much deeper than just Fiorina: They started before she arrived and continued long after she left.
Still Fiorina’s bruising tenure at HP failed to reinvigorate the iconic Silicon Valley company, and it tarnished her credentials as an executive. In fact, HP’s share price jumped on the day her departure was announced. "The stock is up a bit on the fact that nobody liked Carly's leadership all that much," Robert Cihra, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners, told CNN Money that day in 2005. "The Street had lost all faith in her, and the market's hope is that anyone will be better."
That record doesn’t sound like a springboard to the highest office in the land.
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