Listening to the Hewlett Packard earnings call was an exercise in the surreal today. CEO Meg Whitman started the call with a cheerful anecdote about some really neat-o gizmo she saw at HP. Just the sorta whiz bang stuff that’s gonna get HP back on its feet in no time!
She’s never been more optimistic about HP’s future! Gonna invest more in that innovation stuff!
Then she proceeded with all sorts of other happy talk about the business stabilizing and yada, yada, yada. And oh, by the way, to realign costs with the business we’re going to throw 27,000 people out the window.
This is where things get awkward.
See, for years, HP embraced the cocktail of massive acquisitions and job cuts. Starting with the Compaq merger in 2001, HP has spent more than $60 billion in cash and stock to acquire at least 59 companies. In the process of growing from 88,000 employees to nearly 350,000, the company has announced job cuts over the past decade that topped 120,000 with the announcement Wednesday.
Clearly, that strategy has been an epic fail. And the board disowned when it hired Leo Apotheker and began pushing the narrative that there had been too much cutting and not enough focus on investment and innovation. Apotheker promised both, but got pushed out before he could deliver either.
Enter Whitman. The board has publicly dissed the strategy of laying off people. But now, it’s about to fire or retire 27,000. People. How to spin this?
The solution: Whitman promised that these would be new and improved layoffs. Not like the crummy old ones that HP used to do under CEOs Mark Hurd and Carly Fiorina. Whitman promised that the “vast majority” of savings from getting rid of all those bodies, estimated to be more than $3 billion annually by the end of FY 2014, would be reinvested in the business, and not just to goose profits.
These are layoffs 2.0.
Pressed for details during the earnings call, Whitman couldn’t offer much in the ways of numbers in terms of how much would actually be invested. And it should be noted that HP is taking charges against earnings totaling $3.5 billion over the next two years, most of which will be the cost of paying severance and early retirement packages. So, by the time HP actually gets around to getting rid of all those folks in a couple of years, it should only take another year or so for the company to break even on the savings.
Of course the nice thing about those cost savings is that they are almost impossible to measure from the outside. We’ll just have to take the company’s word for it that they really did get those savings.
In the meantime, this has to be a crushing blow to an employee base already intensely demoralized by non-stop job cuts over the past decade. HP is not so much a company as it is a patchwork of acquired pieces of technology and companies, a kind of Frankstein monster of the high-tech industry.
For now, Whitman’s trying to breathe some life into HP by leaning on the oldest CEO trick in the playbook: firing people. In this case, the number of HP employees being let go is almost double the 15,500 employees eBay had when she stepped down as CEO there in 2008.
Whether Whitman can finally get this lumbering giant turned in the right direction remains to be seen. But it’s good to know Whitman isn’t letting all this bad news get her down. The future probably looks super bright at HP as long as you keep your eyes shut tight and turn that frown upside down.