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At Large: You can't keep a good man down

At Large: You can't keep a good man down

Comsumed with passion, Matthew JC. Powell can't write with his mouth full . . .

Texan anthropophagi should stay in Texas.

Yes, that's an odd way to start a column, but it's a point I thought I ought to make. It had been kind of buzzing around in the back of my mind as something I ought to know, and ought to tell others. Something about what went wrong with Compaq, but somehow it hadn't crystallised - until last weekend.

I went to see Ravenous, a film about anthropophagi (if you don't know, look it up). Our hero, played by Australia's own Guy Pearce, starts out as a cowardly lieutenant on the Texan frontier during the Mexican-American War in 1847. He plays dead rather than fight during a battle, and his "body" is piled with those of his departed co-combatants behind enemy lines. Following an accidental ingestion sequence I'd rather not go into, he finds strength and courage he never knew before, and captures the Mexican fortress.

An aside: why do the movie marketing types feel the need to inform us that this is "Australia's own" Guy Pearce? Does the Australian Government hold some kind of lease on the man? Are we saying "we don't need to borrow anyone else's Guy Pearce any more, we've got our own"? Are we afraid people might confuse him with America's Guy Pearce, who did make-up on Hitchcock's Lifeboat in 1944? I doubt it. The worst part is that "Australia's own" Guy Pearce was born in England. He's as dinky-di as Mel Gibson, Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees, all of whom are also "Australia's own" because they spent a week or two here in the '70s.

I digress. Pearce's actions earn him military commendations, but the disgust of his commanders, and he is sent to the Californian frontier. There, he gradually falls in with an anthropophagous madman played by Robert Carlyle (Scotland's own). Unlike Carlyle, who thrives on the consumption of his fellow man, Pearce finds it all a bit hard to swallow, eating the legs of another soldier only as a last resort.

I should point out that all of this is done in the best possible taste. Be warned, though, that for a cannibal movie that is a fairly low mark.

The whole time I was watching, I couldn't help thinking of poor Eckart Pfeiffer and the sudden slide of Compaq. The parallels are obvious. Compaq came roaring out of Texas, deriving strength by acquiring, crushing, devouring all before it. Gaining power from its vanquished enemies' strengths and shedding their weaknesses like discarded husks, Compaq seemed unstoppable.

Its next frontier was California and Hewlett-Packard. To take on HP, Pfeiffer ate Digital. A big, expensive, hard-to-chew morsel, Digital had the very strengths - enterprise branding, servers, Unix - that Pfeiffer knew he needed in order to overcome HP. It also had weaknesses, difficult ones, which probably account for the eagerness with which Digital's shareholders allowed their company to become fodder for Compaq's raging appetite.

Unfortunately, the big meal made Compaq sluggish and forgetful. I'm like that myself sometimes if I have a lot of cheese. Many of Digital's strengths were overlooked where they clashed with Compaq's existing market, while Digital's weaknesses somehow managed to keep repeating unpleasantly in mixed company. Rather than become a formidable foe, striking fear into the heart of HP, Compaq had to go sit down for a while and let things settle.

This created a terrible problem for Pfeiffer, in the form of disgruntled shareholders. I can imagine him now, opening letter after letter from corporate partners and minor stakeholders alike, not one of them showing even the slightest traces of gruntle. Whenever this happens, you know heads are going to roll - it's just a matter of who'll do the chopping and who'll do the rolling. For the sake of the shareholders' engruntlement and the good of the company, Pfeiffer followed the time-honoured tradition of all CEOs-cum-scapegoats, and found himself a nice big bear trap in which to pounce.

And what now for Pfeiffer? He'll get a golden parachute the size of Alaska, of course, but so what? His goal of becoming the boss of the undisputed champion biggest computer company on the planet now seems much more distant, but he's still relatively young. If he took over something small now, he still has time to build it up to the point where it could acquire something else, and he'd be on his way again. It's hard for me to believe he's not still hungry.

Compaq may well hold a farewell dinner for Pfeiffer once the smoke has cleared. It should, given his undoubted contributions to the company's success. I know one thing for sure: I wouldn't want to sit next to him.


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