Honesty Hurts, Ms. Whitman!


Honesty is always the best policy. Unless you're a high-profile CEO in full turnaround mode, that is.

It's no secret that Hewlett-Packard is a huge mess nowadays. The scandalous exit of former CEO Mark Hurd led to a seemingly endless comedy of errors, where the tech giant went through three post-Hurd CEOs and at least two major strategy shiftsin 13 months. And this circus has uncovered the deep structural damage Hurd inflicted on HP's legendary innovation engines by cutting all the wrong kinds of costs for years.

This week, current CEO Meg Whitman fessed up to the incredible scale of the mess on her table. In an interview with Businessweek, Whitman put it bluntly: She needs to make some hard decisions to fix her broken company, and it'll take five years to get it done. "Some people don't like that answer," she said.

No kidding. The interview was published on a generally placid Friday, when the market drifted sideways and the tech sector as a whole managed to rise a smidgen. But HP plunged nearly 2% on Whitman's gloomy comments.

That's what you get for being too honest, I suppose, but I'm glad that Whitman realized the magnitude of here challenge. In a perfect world, she would also change her strategy to align with this brutally honest worldview, but that's unfortunately not happening yet. Whitman still seems dead-set on rebuilding HP as another IBM clone rather than doubling down on the divisions that actually work.

A healthy HP would drop the consumer-grade systems business altogether, perhaps by selling it to one of the hungry low-margin wizards streaming westward from China and Taiwan. An enterprise-only version of today's sprawling conglomerate might stand a chance in the long run.

Better yet, I'd love to see Whitman making a really hard decision: Seek a merger with Cisco Systems or Oracle. HP has something each of these would-be renaissance technologists could use, and either option would create an instant IBM clone.

But I don't see Whitman (and HP's bumbling board of directors) swallowing their pride and going for that end game until it becomes the only way out. And that will be far too late to save the value of current investments.

Mr. Market seems to think that HP's turnaround is working, given the 40% surge since early November. I respectfully disagree and have a bearish CAPScall to show for it. Sorry, Meg.

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The article Honesty Hurts, Ms. Whitman! originally appeared on Fool.com.

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