HP’s Split: Is This My Long-Awaited Book Project?

by Jim Lyons | 10/30/14

Following my initial response regarding HP's split, and seeing how this one hits very close to home – both figuratively and literally – I have a few more thoughts to share here. These thoughts are not so much about what has been announced by HP, nor even about the speculation that has followed about how it will all turn out, but about the whole story leading to this “shoe dropping.”

I was lucky enough to see author Erik Larson speak in a community forum just the day after the HP news. Larson is the former journalist who is now the author of popular nonfiction sagas like “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts, as well as the upcoming “Dead Wake,” which, in the words of Larson’s website, covers the “last crossing of the Lusitania.”

In some ways, the HP business decision to cleave its business into two, including putting the printers and PCs in the newly formed HP Inc., is similar to the topics Larson takes on. He describes his method as finding an interesting story from the past that has been of high interest at the time of its occurrence. This high interest assures a plentiful historic record for his research. And then once research is complete, his writing goal is to “animate history,” weaving the tale together with multiple historic threads which put the tale all into fascinating perspective.

So if I were to take on a Larson-style book project on this HP saga, would it qualify, and what threads, if there is an adequate supply, would I want to include? As I have mused on this during the last few weeks, though I am not sure I am up to writing the book, I am sure there are enough interrelated sub-stories out there to make a go of it.

Certainly first on my list would be the documentation of the decades-long success of HP’s printer businesses. This would include the very strong culture, with descriptions and examples of how its employees were the risk-oriented, “mavericky” (to borrow a word from the 2008 presidential campaign) types who reveled in independence from the rest of HP. Those independent souls I knew and worked with back “in the day” are now long gone, at least for the most part. So the split-off of 2014 may have come 10 or 20 years too late. And what of being joined with the PC group? This would not have gone over well back then, but today, things have changed, in terms of strong-minded employees with deep-seated rivalries.

And then what of current HP CEO Meg Whitman and her history? This would of course include her stint as CEO of eBay, and much could be made of the parallels of that company’s split off from PayPal, announced days before HP’s split-off plan. Of course, then I could drill down on the “PayPal mafia,” a group of entrepreneurs who founded PayPal prior to its original acquisition by eBay. This group of now-very-wealthy Silicon Valley residents, led by the controversial Peter Thiel, could easily fill a chapter in the HP story. A Marc Andreessen backgrounder (chapter?) would be a must, too – another great history leading from the founding of Netscape to powerful Silicon Valley venture capitalist and board member at the current HP. These current-day Valley references could then all be contrasted to the environment in 1939 when, by most accounts, Silicon Valley got its start in Bill and Dave’s garage.

And back to Whitman – this late-2014 story has to be told in the context of the history of HP CEOs, going back to the Bill and Dave days, and leading up to the company’s dramatic rise in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s under their protégé, John Young. Following Young, it was the last of the home-grown leaders, Lew Platt, who had his own successful spinoff with Agilent. The procession of outside CEO talent then began with Carly Fiorina, whose tempestuous Compaq acquisition brewed the first scheme for a printer business split, led by Hewlett scion Walter. During her final days the first internal merger of PCs and printers was instigated and announced. But Mark Hurd replaced the failed Fiorina and almost immediately reversed the PC/printer decision, keeping printers independent, and he went on to a few years of iron-fisted leadership that righted the company but was capped by his eventual demise under the cloud of an expense-report scandal. Whitman’s immediate predecessor Léo Apotheker followed Hurd with a brief year-long tenure, including a PC group spinoff idea of his own that contributed to his ouster.

And then there’s more, which may or may not hit the cutting room floor. There’s the whole story of the highly profitable ink (and to a lesser degree, toner) business that is highly profitable but seems to be managed like the proverbial “cash cow.” It would be important to discuss that “cash cow” is not from a proverb at all, but rather the 50-year-old creation of the Boston Consulting Group, so some of that story could make a very interesting chapter.

And some other individuals play an intriguing role in the tale. One of them is current HP board member Patty Russo, who plays a major role in the new dual-company organization that was announced on October 6. She has a fascinating bio of her own, crossing paths with Fiorina during their mutual careers in telecom, then playing a significant if unsuccessful role in the failed management of troubled Kodak, a company whose story could make a perfect example of HP printer-business roadkill.

This post is definitely making me think there’s a book possibility here. But back to Larson’s point about the story being highly interesting during its time? Although for me personally and for our industry and Wall Street, it’s a big deal, I am not sure about how it plays more broadly – as long as I looked on Sunday the 5th when it leaked, and Monday the 6th when it became official, “HP” was never even trending on Twitter – and isn’t that modern-day definition of public interest? And you know, the more I think about it, as far as this being a book – doesn’t a story have include a beginning, middle and end? That’s about as basic as it gets, right? So maybe the HP tale is not yet complete — what’s the ending? As Larson posted recently on his Facebook timeline: “Bottom line — a story's gotta be a story, or no one's going to read it.”


 Jim Lyons has been writing, analyzing and blogging about industry developments since 2006. In his monthly Observations column he comments on business and marketing developments in the printing and imaging industry, combining many years of experience with an ever-enthusiastic eye on the future. In the Jim Lyons Observations column on The Imaging Channel, highlights from that blog appear monthly. Lyons is also a faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching marketing and economics at its school of business, and is a regular contributor to both The Imaging Channel and Workflow. Follow him on Twitter @jflyons and read more of Jim Lyons Observations at http://www.jimlyonsobservations.com/.