Hurd to join PE herd?

Contact: Brenon Daly

With this latest scandal, it’s clear that executives at Hewlett-Packard have lost their way from the ‘HP Way.’ The fairness and mild-mannered approach that once characterized the tech giant has been replaced by a leadership that in recent years has either engaged in or condoned spying, padded expense accounts and played out their own version of Dangerous Liaisons with a former actress in soft-core movies. (Although we’ve been assured that those get-togethers were not sexual, bien sur). Where leaders of HP were once patrician, they now look paranoid; once venerable, they now look venal.

Not that such ineptness and indiscretion will necessarily hurt erstwhile executives from HP. First, it was Carly Fiorina. Despite a largely vacuous tenure that included a misguided purchase of Compaq (not to mention an even more misguided attempt to buy PricewaterhouseCoopers a decade ago), Fiorina is now as likely as not to find her way to the US Senate, representing the most populous and influential state in the union. We suspect that Fiorina’s successor – the recently dispatched Mark Hurd – will likewise land on his feet.

Our guess as to where he’ll work? Private equity (PE). If we think about it, Hurd has already shown many of the skills required to work in a buyout shop. He’s overseen acquisitions of fallen businesses of questionable relevance (3Com) and even questionable viability (Palm Inc). He’s wielded a sharp knife in the name of operational efficiency, trimming tens of thousands of workers from the HP payroll as well as services giant EDS, the $13.9bn purchase two years ago that stands as Hurd’s legacy deal.

And finally, as some critics might point out, Hurd has also demonstrated a PE-style ability to line his own pockets all the while. Despite acknowledging that he failed to live up to HP’s code of conduct – a code, incidentally, that he trumpeted – Hurd’s severance package will give him some $12m in cash plus equity compensation that could be worth twice that amount. To be fair, some of the golden parachute comes from the fact that HP shares have doubled during Hurd’s tenure. And in the end, it’s his Wall Street performance, rather than his corner office peccadilloes, that could very well find him in demand at a buyout shop.