What Would Mark Hurd Do?

In retrospect, Jodie Fisher was the best thing to ever happen to Mark Hurd.

Sure, it may have been socially awkward, professionally embarrassing, and fundamentally challenging at first. Did the booted Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) CEO sleep with the comely marketing consultant? Not necessarily. Did Hurd push through questionable expense reports of public outings with Fisher? Yes.

In the end, the only thing that matters is that Hurd was able to orchestrate his exit -- with a meaty severance package to boot -- before anyone else realized that HP was sinking.

As damaging as last summer's events were to Hurd's character, he got to flee with his professional reputation intact. Oracle's (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) Larry Ellison was there with a lifeboat a few weeks later, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to see the rookie Oracle executive eventually work his way back to the helm of a major tech company.

Meanwhile, Leo Apotheker -- never a popular choice to lead the way -- has to feel duped. He's NCAA's football equivalent of Al Golden.

Hurd 1, Apotheker 0.

Turning the page
They say that history is written by winners, but this also means that it's read by survivors.

Hurd was a winner in his tenure at HP, but not a perfect one. His margin-pumping turnaround was a thing of beauty for investors, but cutting costs -- seen from the employee lens -- can be morale bruisers.

We also can't forget that HP paid a little more than $1 billion for Palm under Hurd's watch. Its flagship webOS blew up under Apotheker last week, but he was just playing with the poor hand that he was dealt.

However, history will still view Hurd as the last great emperor of HP. He'll be seen in the same light as Jack Welch at GE (NYSE: GE  ) and Roberto Goizueta at Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) as great business leaders who were either lucky enough to get out while the going was still good or genius enough to see rough patches coming.

The best two words that I can think of to describe Hurd's ordeal last summer: fortunate misfortune.

Following the Hurd
I still remember HP's whirlwind day on August 6 last summer.

I had just gone on CNBC to break down HP's earnings. Driving home from the affiliate studio, the producers called me back. Could I make my way back to the studio? Mark Hurd had just been shown the door, and they wanted me to share my thoughts with Maria Bartiromo.

I was stunned at his quick fall from grace, but the real shock has been HP's plunge since his departure.

We're not just talking about last week's overdone 27% freefall. HP has surrendered 43% of its value -- or more than $35 billion in market cap -- since Hurd was ousted.

All of this over some bogus expense reports?

Things could still be worse for HP. Boxed-in rival Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) has shed more market share over the past year, even though both are seemingly clueless when it comes to the "good enough" computing trend that finds smartphones and tablets thriving at the expense of casual PC and laptop sales.

The sad truth is that HP wouldn't necessarily be in any better position with Hurd at the helm. He had already cut expenses to the bone, just as Dell has been doing over the past couple of years. Apotheker's push into pricey data storage and cloud computing acquisitions to follow IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) into business services isn't all that different than what Hurd was doing toward the end of his tenure. The only difference is that perhaps Hurd wouldn't have been so quick to pull the plug on webOS given this summer's TouchPad fiasco, but we'll never know if that would have been the better call.

Last summer must've been hell for Hurd -- and his family -- but HP did him the mother of all favors by letting him go before he would have made Apotheker's mistakes. He goes out on top, as another corporate folkloric hero who will be remembered more for what he accomplished than for the bubbling calamity he left in his wake. 

Do you think that HP would have fared differently under Hurd? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

The Motley Fool owns shares of IBM, Coca-Cola, and Oracle. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Dell and Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz pecked away this article on an HP computer, but he does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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