Arik Hesseldahl

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HP's New CEO Has a Big Day Planned, and a Bigger Job Ahead

Hewlett-Packard’s new CEO Léo Apotheker is going to have his big debut today at an event in San Francisco before assembled media and analysts. It will be his first big public speaking engagement since taking over the reins last year, and saying the pressure is on is putting it mildly.

For one thing, January’s restructuring of the board of directors has left a bad taste in the mouth of a pair of shareholder advisory firms, who have publicly called upon HP investors to vote against the re-election of as many as three sitting directors and against some say-on-pay proposals.

Sources familiar with the situation confirmed to me that after today’s event, HP’s investor relations team plans to mount what’s being described as a “road show” to counter the recommendations to vote against management made by Institutional Shareholders Services and Glass Lewis among retail investors. Exactly who is involved and whom they plan to visit couldn’t be determined. HP had no comment about it.

At least part of the road show’s mission will be to drive home the highlights of the strategy that Apotheker lays out in his keynote today. But there is some nagging concern that a sufficient number of shareholders, put off by repeated instances of board room drama over the last decade — Carly Fiorina’s ouster in 2002, the pre-texting scandal in 2006, and last year’s departure former CEO Mark Hurd — may vote against the three directors standing for another term: Lawrence Babbio, Sari Baldauf, and Ken Thompson.

That enough investors would vote against management to make a difference may seem unlikely at first until you consider the number of shareholder lawsuits stemming from the Hurd affair that are currently pending both in federal courts and in the Delaware Chancery Court. The fear of an embarrassing defeat for HP and its new board at the annual meeting on March 23 isn’t an unreasonable one.

Then there are the larger questions. As Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi pointed out in a recent note to clients, HP’s stock has underperformed the S&P 500 since Hurd’s departure, and the lag has been driven mostly by uncertainty among investors about its strategy and about Apotheker himself. Its disappointing results in the first quarter didn’t help matters.

There are numerous questions around HP’s hardware strategy, particularly around the PC business. While it has promised to put the WebOS platform it acquired last year when it absorbed Palm into tablets and into every PC it ships, HP is still seen as far behind Apple on the tablet front. We all know why that is.

But the questions go deeper than that. Apotheker, a former CEO of the business software giant SAP, last week sent a strong signal in an interview with Bloomberg News that he plans to acquire some software companies.

What kind of acquisitions? He’s ruled out SAP, for one thing. And in a meeting with Bernstein’s Sacconaghi last month, he said any acquisitions would not be so large as to “keep investors awake at night,” meaning, Sacconaghi suggests, that they would probably not exceed $5 billion. Aside from buying software companies, he’s also signaled that the days of cuts–the hallmark of Mark Hurd’s tenure–are over. Cutting costs is out, investing is in.

But then there’s the larger issue about whether or not Apotheker can steer Hewlett-Packard, the storied Silicon Valley icon, on a course that restores its former glory. The question marks around him on this score are considerable because the task is just so huge. HP is a sprawling $126 billion juggernaut meaning change comes slowly, often in barely perceptible steps that leave impatient investors wondering what’s taking so long.

At the outset, the Apotheker’s strategy appears to be summed up pretty simply: Bring the market-leading position in hardware to bear and combine its offerings with a newly ascendant software business, which together will feed into an IT services business that aims to compete with IBM. It’s not going to be easy and the most important important thing that Apotheker has to do is inspire both analysts and shareholders alike that he’s the man to get the job done. As yet both are understandably skeptical mainly because Apotheker is an unknown quantity.

When Apotheker’s predecessor Mark Hurd took over at HP in 2005, there was very little doubt about what kind of CEO he would be: A relentless, unsentimental cost-cutter, and this much was clear before he was even officially on the job.

And while Apotheker has pointed tentatively in the direction he’d like to take HP, there are still more questions about him than there is certainty. His most important job will be to convince all concerned that he’s the man who can steer HP back on a course to greatness.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald