The Ghosts Haunting HP Are Real

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"She thrusts her fists against the posts and still insists she sees no ghosts."
-- Adapted from the classic science fiction novel Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak

Newly appointed Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman says that her company isn't broken. Famed activist investor Bill Ackman calls the same company "a big, complicated mess."

Who do you believe?

Let's just agree to disagree, OK?
In a short CNN interview, Whitman insists that there's nothing wrong with HP that a healthy dose of leadership can't fix. "They're the biggest technology company in the world," she said, noting the company's assets. "First and foremost we've got to get a strategy that everyone understands, execute against that strategy, and I think everything will take care of itself."

At the same time, Ackman sat down with Bloomberg to deliver a very different take on HP. Many of the company's largest investors have been begging him to take a large position and shake things up, like he's done with Kraft Foods (NYS: KFT) and General Growth Properties (NYS: GGP) . His Carl Icahn-like strategy (can we call it "Icahnny," rhyming with "uncanny"?) of wading into troubled businesses and helping them right the ship has crushed the DJIA (INDEX: ^DJI) over the last five years; who better to rush in and clean HP's deeply troubled house?

But this challenge is too great even for turnaround expert Ackman. The sprawling tech conglomerate is in many businesses that seem impossible to value over the long term, and the work required to restore HP to its full potential is just too great. In his words, the "return on invested brain damage" just isn't there. That's officially my favorite investment metric now.

Ackman just attended a meeting at the HP headquarters and says that "it was just depressing walking around" in a sea of low morale. HP employees have been cast down from a paragon of innovation to a pariah of scandals and mismanagement, and no longer understand where the company is going.

What it all boils down to
Whitman and Ackman seem to agree that HP needs strong leadership at this critical point in its long history. They just disagree on how easy it is to find it. Unfortunately for Whitman and HP, I think that Ackman's view is closer to the truth.

I'm betting my All-Star CAPS status on Hewlett-Packard walking down a long, painful path toward irrelevance. Whitman did a tremendous job as CEO of eBay (NAS: EBAY) and might have been a good choice for rudderless and leaderless online giant Yahoo!, and I wouldn't blame her one bit for jumping ship tomorrow if Jerry Yang comes knocking with a better job offer.

But she's not the leader with a broad vision that HP so desperately needs. I understand that Meg must blow her own trumpet on live TV, but deep down she must be as worried about the mess she inherited as Ackman is.

Actually saying so might send her right back to the unemployment office, though. Not only is it Whitman's fiduciary duty to keep a stiff upper lip, but this tragic board of directors has displayed a very unpredictable trigger finger.

Like Ackman said, HP looks cheap but it ain't worth the risk. Fellow Fool and value hound Anand Chokkavelu has found one stock with deep tech roots to buy in October, and HP isn't it. Instead, he's looking at Corning (NYS: GLW) with hungry eyes. Maybe you should, too.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Yahoo!. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Yahoo!, eBay, and Corning. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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