Hewlett-Packard’s lack of direction continues apace. The PC-to-printer conglomerate now led by Meg Whitman appears to be looking to Goldman Sachs to fend off possible activist investors. Meanwhile, Oracle is baiting HP, suggesting its offer for Autonomy is profligate and Mike Lynch, the U.K. firm’s chief executive, is forgetful at best. Yet an uppity investor with a strategy could be just what HP needs.
The spat with Oracle, though titillating to Silicon Valley insiders, probably doesn’t mean much. CEO Larry Ellison has taken lately to tweaking HP – including snapping up Mark Hurd, HP’s last boss but one, after he was ousted by the board last year. Oracle is probably right that the 11-digit price tag HP put on Autonomy is too rich. However entertaining, the efforts to question Mr. Lynch’s veracity are less convincing.
That said, it all adds to the general impression of chaos around HP. The last chief, Leo Apotheker, oversaw the deal to buy Autonomy, said the company might sell its PC-making division, and backed away from the mobile operating system HP had bought along with Palm. The sharp negative reaction from investors led the plainly dysfunctional board to replace him after less than a year in the job with Ms. Whitman, who became a director earlier this year but is otherwise yet another outsider.
Given the board’s missteps, it’s easy to worry that the appointment of Goldman is an effort to wall HP off from the attentions of any activists or predators who might be lured into the fray by its languishing share price and obvious lack of direction. On the other hand, it may be the company’s top brass genuinely want to get organized and find a convincing new course with some help from the blue-chip Wall Street firm.
That’s the better response, because activism more often than not coincides with broader shareholder disappointment, and individuals with skin in the game can have good ideas. A further refreshed board might be one result. If nothing else, the emergence of a serious external challenge to the status quo could force Ms. Whitman and the board to clarify their strategy. Having one, and sticking to it for more than a few months, would already be a big improvement.