Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

HP Analysts Like Losing Léo, Not Sold on Whitman as CEO

So what do HP’s biggest drama critics — I mean analysts — think about the latest shakeup to hit that company?

It’s a mixed bag. While they all seem to agree that HP’s board is right to push out CEO Léo Apotheker, especially in light of the stock performance, a confused strategy and a jarring change in emphasis, none seem ready to endorse the ascendance of Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO and current HP director, to that company’s top job. Yet like it or not, the HP board meeting that will make it all official is underway, and as AllThingsD has reported, Meg Whitman will be named HP’s CEO at the close of markets today.

Toni Sacconaghi of SanfordBernstein, the author of a widely circulated note last week describing how “exasperated” HP investors are, weighed in again. “We are not surprised by HP’s stock’s reaction yesterday, given that our conversations with shareholders and investors over the past month revealed a level of exasperation that we have not seen directed at HP or any other company in our universe in our 13 years following the sector,” he wrote in a note today.

He also slammed HP’s board. “Our conversations with major shareholders also indicate that they have been disgruntled with the board, given it has made and approved a series of decisions” — including the ouster of the prior CEO Mark Hurd, the Autonomy deal, the premature announcement of the PC-spinout — “that many shareholders believe were poor decisions and misaligned with their interests,” he wrote.

Nor is he a fan of the Whitman hiring. HP needs to search far and wide and also internally for another CEO, Sacconaghi says. “We would view any decision not to conduct a comprehensive search of internal and external candidates for a permanent CEO role as unsatisfactory and unnecessarily hasty,” he wrote. “We also believe that shareholder reaction to Whitman as a permanent CEO would be mixed.” He also thinks CFO Cathie Lesjak, notable for filling in as interim CEO during the Hurd-to-Apotheker transition, may be leaving.

Shaw Wu of Sterne Agee is pretty much in agreement with Sacconaghi. “Given the disappointing financial performance over the last few quarters and some questionable decision making including the high purchase price of Autonomy, handling of the spinoff of its PC operation, and abrupt shutdown of its webOS hardware business, we are frankly not surprised that a change is being considered,” he wrote in a note to clients today. “So far, investors and even some customers we have talked to don’t seem confident in where HPQ is heading so a change is likely needed.”

But he’s not sold on Whitman. “While we believe she has proven to be a very capable manager helping grow eBay from a start-up into one of the largest internet companies, we think an ideal candidate for HPQ should have extensive experience in the enterprise market. In addition, we believe expertise in supply chain management would be helpful as well.” He goes on to name a handful of insiders and outsiders he’d consider possible successors: Dave Donatelli, who runs HP’s enterprise business; Todd Bradley, who runs the personal systems group and would be a likely CEO of that unit if it’s spun out; Steve Mills, who runs software and hardware at IBM; and Gary Moore, the COO of Cisco Systems.

Wu also says it might be a good idea for HP to keep its PC unit after all is said and done. “We estimate the business generates $2 billion in operating income per year and is the second most profitable behind Apple,” he wrote. Also the PC business isn’t so bad when you think of it as being one and the same with the tablet market. He maintained a neutral rating on HP for now.

Lou Miscioscia of Collins Stewart isn’t encouraged by the shake-up, either. Many of HP’s problems aren’t necessarily Apotheker’s fault, he says in a note to clients issued today. And he’s not sold on Whitman, arguing that she’s never run so large a company as HP and has never run one focused on the enterprise before. He maintained a neutral rating.

And while a post-Apotheker HP may undo some of his decisions, like spinning off the PC business, one thing it probably can’t do is walk away from its $10 billion purchase of Autonomy Software, says Jeffries and Co. analyst Peter Misek. Corporate takeovers are governed by strict laws in the U.K., making it nearly impossible for HP to pull out of the deal now. He rates HP shares a buy.


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