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The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Hewlett-Packard was quick to sort out the details of the Compaq acquisition, but must now play a waiting game; why WorldCom's problems may create problems for you.

Addressing a group of analysts in June, one month after she won her battle to merge Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, Carly Fiorina said, “I would [not] want to relive the last nine months.” Yet the next nine may be tougher still.

Fiorina, HP chairman and CEO, led a phalanx of senior executives to the Boston meeting, all of them intent on demonstrating that despite contention over the merger and a slumping economy, the deal makes good sense for “the new HP” and its customers. By all accounts, HP has moved quickly and competently to merge the two companies, helped by lessons learned from Compaq’s acquisition of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1998, which was handled less well.

Yet the speed with which HP has moved stands in dismaying contrast to the sluggishness of the IT market, and already the company has had to revise revenue projections down. The company has tried to put a happy face on the situation–CFO Bob Wayman, for example, trotted out a chart that showed that HP and Compaq’s revenue had not dropped nearly as badly as the average among its major competitors–but to some degree, the company is all dressed up with no particularly exciting place to go.

Wayman has an answer for that as well. In July he suggested that the IT spending slump was actually good for HP. “We’re benefiting from the slow environment,” he said. “We have many transitions to go through, and a slow-moving market can minimize losses.”

One loss the company would like to maximize is manpower. As part of its effort to reduce its workforce by 15,000 people by the end of next year, HP offered a generous early-retirement program to about 9,000 employees. Around 4,000 took the company up on it. The terms were such that HP will absorb a bigger-than-anticipated restructuring charge, but Wayman says it’s worth it because the early-retirement program enables HP to cut its workforce more quickly, particularly in parts of the world where layoffs don’t proceed with what might charitably be called American efficiency.

While HP now believes it can achieve its headcount reductions even sooner than it first thought, there is one staffing matter that poses an issue for customers: the company had not, as of press time, sorted out who the new contact people would be for any but its largest enterprise accounts. Merging two sales forces and the armies of customer-service and field reps who work with them is a daunting task, of course, and HP expects to work through it by summer’s end. Joe Wagner, vice president and CIO at the North Broward Hospital District, Florida’s largest health-care provider, says, “We’ve seen some churn as far as who is assigned to our account, but we expected it. We know HP faces a relearning period at the customer-contact level, but we think the merger makes sense.”

The Power Of One

Despite that hiccup, analysts say that the HP sales force will enjoy two advantages. First, it can walk customers through a detailed road map describing product strategy. Second, it can offer more products and services. “Buyers clearly want to consolidate the number of companies they deal with,” says Herb VanHook, executive vice president at Meta Group. The new HP is almost as big as IBM, and “has a broad enough product and services offering so that customers see a chance to negotiate volume deals and streamline their vendor portfolios.”

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