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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

August 29, 2011 at 9:48 AM

HP follows Wall Street to nowhere

Steve Jobs did his old employer one last favor.

By resigning from Apple last week, Jobs made everyone briefly forget that Hewlett-Packard, where he had one of his first jobs, had just hobbled itself.

It may seem like ancient history, but HP’s debacle isn’t over yet, and the outcome will reshape the tech industry and the lives of tens of thousands of employees across the West.

The world’s largest PC maker and cornerstone of Silicon Valley announced Aug. 18 that it was killing its new flagship Web tablet and may jettison its PC business.

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Simultaneously, Chief Executive Leo Apotheker (left) doubled down on its higher-margin corporate-technology business, bidding more than $10 billion for a relatively low-profile British enterprise software company.

HP’s stock was in the $40s in the spring, the mid-$30s in early summer and then plunged below $25 on the news (see chart). HP lost more than $10 billion in value, and the fabled company may be a takeover target, ready to be sliced and diced.

There’s no doubt the PC industry is in a slump, and HP’s TouchPad tablet was a dud.

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But the PC industry is cyclical, and in past years its growth lifted other parts of HP’s business. In the fiscal year that ended last October, HP’s personal-systems group — the unit that sells PCs — accounted for half the company’s net revenue growth.

The group’s sales were up 15 percent in fiscal 2010, to $40.7 billion, and its profit grew 5 percent to $2 billion.

Yet, in 2009 and 2010, HP cut the percentage of the group’s revenue spent on researching and developing new products.

That’s a far cry from the legendary invention factory that gave Jobs a summer job in his teens and served as an early role model for Apple.

What’s most striking is that HP has been acting just the way Wall Street encourages tech companies to behave. It’s been ruthless on costs, and unsentimental in deciding to slash core businesses and chase products that, for now, have higher margins.

But instead of applauding these bold moves, investors have savaged HP. Ratings agencies raised red flags and several research firms downgraded its stock after the announcement.

Some Wall Street sirens still praised the approach, if not the execution. Credit Suisse’s Kulbinder Garcha told The Wall Street Journal that HP had the “correct strategy” in buying the British company, and Gleacher & Co.’s Brian Marshall told the paper, “HP is undergoing a sound strategy transformation by focusing on high-growth, high-margin opportunities.”

We may hear more of this in a few weeks when Microsoft holds its annual meeting with financial analysts. They’ve perennially asked the company to slash costs. In recent years, as Microsoft stock lagged despite the company’s steady growth, some began calling on Chief Executive Steve Ballmer to break the company apart.

This would enable investors to choose only the most profitable groups, instead of having to bet broadly on the whole company.

It’s a cynical and greedy approach.

Global tech companies that take the long view use proceeds of their hits to develop new products that may take years to crystallize and become profitable. Eventually this broadens their reach into new markets, grows profit and stabilizes companies that employ tens of thousands of people and provide tools the world depends upon.

Multiple businesses balance each other through cycles. Strong Xbox sales made up for slowing Windows sales during Microsoft’s last fiscal year.

Instead of laying people off when its core product slowed, Ballmer announced across-the-board compensation increases that take effect in September, because “success comes from the people who work here,” he said in an April memo.

Microsoft hasn’t charmed Wall Street in years, and Ballmer doesn’t seem to bother.

That’s one way to deal with Wall Street. Another is Apple’s approach, which is to play the Street like a Garageband guitar.

For instance, the day before Jobs resigned, someone told The Wall Street Journal that the iPhone 5 will debut in October on Sprint as well as AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Who would sell Apple stock right before an iPhone launch, Jobs or no Jobs?

Then we have HP’s approach. Apotheker is still trying to make his mark, in the footsteps of past HP bosses who cut thousands of jobs and spent heavily on acquisitions to boost growth and woo investors. I’ll bet he takes the fall for clumsily attempting to give the queen of the PC industry a quick and dirty makeover.

When it comes to tech companies of a certain age, Wall Street is like a rude old man who presses his wife to get a radical face-lift and boob job because he can’t see her beauty and lusts for a young filly.

HP is the latest reminder that you’ll never be happy in a relationship like that: It went under the knife and still ended up forlorn, dumped on the curb.

Comments | Topics: Apple, apple, Enterprise

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