HP names Whitman CEO, Apotheker out

SAN FRANCISCO Thu Sep 22, 2011 6:47pm EDT

Meg Whitman gives her concession speech during her election night rally in Los Angeles, California, November 2, 2010. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Meg Whitman gives her concession speech during her election night rally in Los Angeles, California, November 2, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hewlett-Packard Co named former eBay Inc Chief Executive Meg Whitman its president and CEO, replacing the harshly criticized Leo Apotheker in a bid to restore investor confidence in the U.S. technology company.

The decision was made without a formal CEO search and piled renewed criticism on the board, which Wall Street has been blamed -- at least in part -- for the storied Silicon Valley's recent missteps.

Whitman, an Internet retail expert with a mixed track record, is not an obvious choice to revive HP, analysts said. The failed California gubernatorial candidate transformed eBay from a few dozen employees in 1998 into a global Internet retail powerhouse, but the final years of her reign were marked by sputtering growth, intensifying Wall Street criticism and a string of unwise acquisitions, including of Skype.

While her elevation surprised many with its seeming hastiness -- for the second time, internal candidates such as enterprise chief David Donatelli were passed over -- Apotheker's ejection had been a matter of time.

He becomes the third straight HP CEO shown the door.

"Some might be saying maybe Meg Whitman isn't the right person, either. She's not a hardware person," said Auriga analyst Kevin Hunt. But HP "just needs someone to set the direction."

Analysts had speculated that Apotheker's departure might presage a backtracking on major decisions taken during his 11-month term. But HP reassured investors on a conference call on Thursday that the board was not changing strategy again.

Whitman said HP remained committed to completing a review of its PC division before the year ends, and expected to close the pricey $12 billion acquisition of British software maker Autonomy Corp Plc as planned.

HP's shares closed down 4.8 percent at $22.80, wiping out much of Wednesday's 6.6 percent gain.

"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," Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi, who has been openly critical of HP's board, wrote in a note earlier on Thursday.

HP Chairman Ray Lane dismissed such concerns. He said the board chose Whitman after serious consideration and that her strong communication and operational execution skills made her the best candidate.

QUESTIONS?

In less than a year on the job, Apotheker, formerly SAP AG CEO, slashed HP's forecasts for three straight quarters and struggled to reverse a 50 percent plunge in the share price.

The storied Silicon Valley computer maker is fighting to restore its crumbling credibility. Whitman has to galvanize growth at a company that gets more than a third of its revenue from a slowing European economy, and is struggling to offset sliding PC revenue with services and software.

"We are at a critical moment and we need renewed leadership to successfully implement our strategy and take advantage of the market opportunities ahead," said Lane, who moved from non-executive chairman to executive chairman on Thursday.

Whitman's record at eBay came under scrutiny during her failed campaign for California's governorship. Analysts question whether her stewardship of eBay prepared her to steer a sprawling enterprise and computer giant.

The billionaire is credited with catapulting eBay into the upper echelons of a then-nascent e-commerce arena, and taking it public. But critics note she pushed hard to acquire Internet telephony service Skype, beginning a long and ultimately fruitless attempt to wring value from it. EBay eventually unloaded it, and it ended up with Microsoft Corp.

Her successor, John Donahoe, spent years engineering a turnaround and trying to rekindle stalled growth.

"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 HP should have extensive experience in the enterprise market," Stern Agee analyst Shaw Wu said in a client note.

Better choices would include HP enterprise chief Dave Donatelli and PC head Todd Bradley, two names that had also made the rounds in Silicon Valley for the top job after Mark Hurd's ouster in August 2010, he added.

On a more personal level, opponents and media on the campaign trail last year raised questions about Whitman's fierce temper and imperious manner with employees, and even about her integrity after it emerged that the wealthy former CEO had employed an illegal alien maid.

(Writing by Edwin Chan; Editing by Gunna Dickson, Gerald E. McCormick and Richard Chang)

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