Did Carly Fiorina really do a bad job as CEO?

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Carly Fiorina proved a major force in Wednesday's Republican primary debate on CNN.

But as has been the case throughout her campaign, she was challenged about her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP)—a job she was ultimately forced out of less than five years into her tenure.


Did she really do a bad job?

The main complaint has been her decision to merge her company with computer maker Compaq in 2001. At the time, Michael Dell, the founder of Dell computers, called it "the dumbest deal of the decade" — although he had much to lose if the move worked.


For a while it seemed like he was right: In the wake of the deal, HP’s stock price tanked, and thousands of people were laid off. Analysts said the merger would end up distracting the company from its core missions.

But by 2006 — a year after Fiorina had been ousted — HP had surpassed IBM as the world's biggest technology company based on revenue, and indeed, passed Dell to become the world's No. 1 PC company.

Alongside this turnaround, the thinking on the Compaq deal, not to mention Fiorina's tenure, began to evolve.

"People don't talk about it anymore because its initial assumptions have been proven right … Ultimately, it turned out to be a good move," Robert Burgelman of Stanford Business School  said in 2007. He pointed out the new company achieved approximately $3.5 billion in cost savings, and seemed to solve the problem of how two large but not dominant players in the market could continue to grow.


Tommy Wald, former CEO of White Glove Technologies, an HP client that was bought out three years ago, told computer magazine CRN in 2011, "You look back now, and Carly was right—there was a lot of synergy between the two companies. The merger worked out well in retrospect."

Ultimately, Dell, HP and other large computer hardware makers all struggled to evolve in a post-PC world. Between 2005 and 2012, Dell saw its share price fall 75 percent, and in 2013 Michael Dell decided to take his company private.


"The market's a lot different than anyone expected coming into the year," Dell's chief financial officer, Brian Gladden, said at the time.

Meanwhile, none of Fiorina's successors have been able to do much better at turning the company around. The man who replaced her resigned in scandal, and on Tuesday current CEO Meg Whitman offered more details on the company's plans to lay off workers and split itself in two, with "the PC and printer-focused 'HP Inc.'" focused on "returning cash to shareholders while expanding into new markets such as 3-D printing," according to the Wall Street Journal's Robert McMillan. (I have written elsewhere that the future of retail 3-D printing remains very cloudy).


So yes, things went south, for a bit, on Fiorina's watch. When the company did bounce back a few years later, it was difficult for an ousted CEO to take credit.

Yet as other makers of big, clunky computers learned, it basically took a stroke of genius to see where the future of computing was heading.


Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.