How many CEOs will the Hewlett-Packard board have to force out before it realizes that the person who should have succeeded Lew Platt back in 1999 is Ann Livermore, the HP veteran running the company's enterprise business? If the board blows it again and fails to name Livermore to replace ousted chairman and CEO Mark Hurd, the way it blew it when Carly Fiorina was booted out in 2005, the wasted opportunity will be inexcusably senseless.
Those of us who remember Platt recall a time when "HP" and "scandal" were an oxymoron. When Platt died in September 2005, just months after Hurd took the reins as CEO, HP issued a press release in which Hurd was quoted as follows:
Lew cared deeply for HP and its people, and his loss is being felt widely across our company. He was a natural leader who was enormously well liked and made an enduring impression on those he encountered. The way he treated people and how he ran the company set an exceptionally high standard of personal decency.
That assessment was spot on, according to many people who knew Platt, and it begs the question of why HP's board didn't have the foresight to name Livermore, who has devoted her entire career to HP and is widely seen as being cut from exactly the same mold, to replace him. I've interviewed Livermore several times over the years, most recently in April 2005, just a few days after Hurd took over as CEO. Here's an excerpt from that interview:
Tennant: What's the buzz at HP now that Mark Hurd has taken over as CEO?
Livermore: The buzz is good. The customer and employee reaction to Mark has been positive. He clearly has a very strong operational background and expertise, and a very deep knowledge of aspects of the computer industry. So he had a good match with the qualifications.
Tennant: Did the board consult with you before hiring Hurd?
Livermore: The board did not discuss with any of the HP executives who the candidates were, because that's quite confidential to all of the candidates -- they're in responsible business positions at other firms. Once anyone knows, it starts spreading, no matter who the anyone is. So I think our board did a nice job keeping the candidate list confidential.
Tennant: How did you learn that Carly would be leaving, and were you surprised by the news?
Livermore: That's really an internal HP set of things, so I don't want to go there. But clearly it was managed very well in terms of our board and the way we handled the communication.
Tennant: You were widely considered a top contender for the spot. Did the board approach you at any point to discuss your candidacy?
Livermore: We're not making any comments on who were candidates and who weren't, or the speculation associated with it. But I will tell you I think they made a good choice.
As you can see, Livermore was gracious and unwaveringly loyal in her responses, and she went on to accomplish the real work of doing what it took to grow HP's business, without the glamour and perks of the CEO title. Hurd can take credit for ruthlessly cutting costs, but it's Livermore, more than anyone else, who has been the most instrumental person at HP in growing the top line.
Livermore is on the Wall Street Journal's list of the of the top 10 candidates to replace Hurd, and no one else on the list comes close to matching her credentials. If HP is ever to regain the respect and admiration it once enjoyed, it needs to have the right person at the helm to guide the way. For the sake of HP's employees, shareholders and customers, let's hope HP's board gives Livermore the chance she has earned to take the wheel.