Has the merger of two big computer companies ever worked out? It's easy to think of the flops: Burroughs Corp. and Sperry Corp. in 1986; Groupe Bull and Honeywell the same year; Compaq Computer Corp. and Digital Equipment Corp. in 1998. When Hewlett-Packard Co. acquired Compaq last year -- the $19 billion deal was the largest computer merger ever -- more than a few industry observers remarked that it was déjà-vu all over again.
But Carly Fiorina is determined to defy history. The HP chief executive, one of just six female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, conceived the merger and pushed it through, overcoming a bitter proxy fight led by Walter Hewlett, a major shareholder and the son of the company's co-founder. Last May Fiorina finally prevailed, in a courtroom battle that Hewlett had launched to challenge the shareholder vote.
Fiorina's story is now the subject of two books: Perfect Enough: Carly Fiorina and the Reinvention of Hewlett-Packard, by George Anders, a senior editor at Fast Company who won the Pulitzer Prize while a reporter at The Wall Street Journal; and Backfire: Carly Fiorina's High-Stakes Battle for the Soul of Hewlett-Packard, by Peter Burrows, a BusinessWeek journalist.
The writers judge their protagonist differently. Anders champions Fiorina as a strong, passionate CEO, the savior of a celebrated Silicon Valley institution that had fallen into decline. "An hour with Carly Fiorina was a session full of inspirational allusions to everything from the Crusades to nuclear fission," he writes. In his view, Fiorina is a properly tough executive operating in a tough environment, "fighting her way through problems that would have destroyed most executives." Although Anders is a stronger stylist, Burrows makes a stronger case for the HP chief as an "ambitious, hard-driving" executive who alienated others during her climb up the corporate ladder. "The sense of betrayal . . . is a common theme for many people who have done business with Fiorina," Burrows writes.
Created in a Palo Alto garage in 1938 by William Hewlett and David Packard -- their first product was an instrument used by sound engineers -- HP was widely admired for an egalitarian corporate culture that stressed job security and prized humility over hype. In the 1990s, though, it failed to capitalize on opportunities in PCs and the Internet.
In recounting Fiorina's tenure at this historic company, Anders writes fluidly and benefits from superb sourcing on both sides of the battle. But he fails to critique her methods or fully analyze the company's strategic problems.
Burrows, on the other hand, details HP's controversial maneuvers during the proxy fight. (The reviewer worked as a BusinessWeek correspondent before the proxy battle and was a colleague of Burrows's.) The author notes that HP failed to fully disclose postmerger pay agreements for Fiorina and Compaq CEO Michael Capellas worth a combined $115 million.
Fiorina spoke at length with Anders, revealing some private moments. Shortly after becoming CEO, Fiorina was asked to leave a board meeting as outgoing chairman Lewis Platt complained that she was moving too fast, promising too much. After the meeting ended, Platt's successor, Richard Hackborn, came to Fiorina's office. "[He] was just tremendously empathetic. I remember us sitting very close together on a couch. And the physical presence was comforting," Fiorina told Anders.
Burrows's book includes a useful epilogue that assesses the long-term outlook for the merged company. He notes that while cost-cutting and integration processes are ahead of schedule, morale is low and many expect a "major exodus" of talent after May 2003, when final retention bonuses are paid. HP now faces a Dell Computer Corp. challenge in the printer market, which provides the vast majority of HP's operating profits.
To make this merger work -- and defy business history -- HP will need a strong leader. Carly Fiorina did not become CEO of Hewlett-Packard by being weak.