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The birth of HP sisterhood

The birth of HP sisterhood

Hewlett-Packard has 123,000 employees worldwide and had a total revenue of $47.1 billion in 1998. And now the company also has its first female CEO ever.

Even Oprah Winfrey, at No 2, takes a back seat to Carly Fiorina atop Fortune magazine's list of the 50 most powerful women in American business.

Little wonder: a couple of weeks ago Fiorina was named CEO at Hewlett-Packard, making her head of the largest US public corporation ever run by a female executive.

While 44-year-old Fiorina was not one of the more high-profile candidates for HP's top job, she was handpicked by the board as the only candidate deemed capable of replacing the outbound Lew Platt at the helm of the Palo Alto ship.

"Carly was our first choice and the only candidate presented to the board," Platt was quoted as saying in a teleconference, which took place 36 hours after the heiress to his executive chair had started unpacking at Hewlett-Packard's Californian headquarters, getting ready for some badly needed company spring-cleaning.

Indeed, industry experts say her talents are the stuff of a top-notch CEO, especially for an established company looking for a fresh industry push.

"The message that comes with Fiorina is that HP is serious about giving itself a new look," says Kelly Spang, an analyst with US-based Technology Business Research. "Fiorina's background in management, business and technology gives her the ability to bring out-of-the-box thinking and creative problem solving to the company."

Fiorina took a circuitous route to the top of HP. A student of medieval history, she hopped from secretarial to teaching jobs before taking a job in sales at AT&T, where she started in 1980 selling telephone services to the US Government and was regularly promoted.

When AT&T spun off Lucent Technologies in 1995, Fiorina managed the transition and the then-record $3 billion initial public offering in 1996. She was so successful in this job and several others that she was tapped as CEO of Lucent's $20 billion Global Service Provider Business. Today, this division accounts for over 60 per cent of Lucent's revenue.

Fiorina was born into a left brain/right brain family, the daughter of a law professor father and an artist mother in Austin, Texas. She travelled the world with her family and attended five high schools before settling down back in the US, and subsequently earning a BA from Stanford University, an MS from MIT's Sloan School of Management and an MBA in marketing from the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

While the press makes much of her gender, Fiorina is accustomed to working with high-profile women at Lucent and will be surrounded by them at HP. At Lucent, her former peers, Pat Russo and Kathy Fitzgerald, both hold vice presidential positions. And at HP, three women hold top offices in the executive suite: Carolyn Ticknor, CEO of the printer division; Susan Bowick, a human resources executive; and Ann Livermore, head of HP's Enterprise Computing Division, who was considered the top inside candidate for the CEO job. Praising the work done by Livermore, Fiorina said she saw Livermore and herself as "very like-minded", prompting semi-cynical industry remarks about "the birth of the HP sisterhood".

Yet taking her first steps in the HP CEO's shoes, Fiorina has already indicated in more than one way the need for the company to reinvent itself. HP has "a great soul", she said, but also needs to reinvent itself when it comes to a sense of speed, sense of urgency and a competitive spirit or, in Fiorina's words, "the willingness to win". And if it takes a "sisterhood" to get it there, then so be it.

Fiorina aims to make HP a major player in "the second chapter of the Internet", and according to her marketing antennae, all HP needs is to raise awareness of the fact that it is already much deeper into Internet business than is perceived by those outside the company.

She wants HP to innovate, intends to leverage more of the work done in the HP Labs, "where we spend a lot of money" and insists on the need to find the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation of the company.

Asked what she brings to HP, Fiorina listed her knowledge of how to grow high-tech businesses very rapidly and how to respond to customers, as well as an understanding of the power of a brand and experience in the convergence of the communications and computer industries.

As stereotypes would have it, this is not bad for a blonde law-school dropout and a wife of a retired Lucent executive, Frank, with whom she lives in New Jersey. Moreover, this is definitely not bad for HP whose "great old soul" is about to be reincarnated under the guidance of a professional woman in her prime and America's new first and leading lady.


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