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CEO Gaffe of the Week: Hewlett Packard, Once Again

By Sean Williams - Nov 23, 2012 at 5:31PM

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Some days CEOs would be better off staying in bed.

This year, I introduced a weekly series called "CEO Gaffe of the Week." Having come across more than a handful of questionable executive decisions last year when compiling my list of the worst CEOs of 2011, I thought it could be a learning experience for all of us if I pointed out apparent gaffes as they occur. Trusting your investments begins with trusting the leadership at the top -- and with leaders like these on your side, sometimes you don't need enemies!

This week I want to once again take a look at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ 5.38%) -- the stock market's equivalent of Bozo the Clown -- and highlight CEO Meg Whitman and basically every other HP CEO over the past five years!

The dunce cap
If you got a quarter for your cookie jar each time your company made the right move, then HP's jar has been empty for the better part of five years now. It has been just one issue after another for the once-powerful PC company.

First it dealt with the questionable departure of former CEO Mark Hurd following sexual harassment allegations. Hurd, according to a report in the Huffington Post, falsified reports to cover up spending on meals and travel with a female companion. Then came the questionable hire of the unproven Leo Apotheker who helped orchestrate the $11 billion purchase of information technology company Autonomy and led HP's other businesses in circles. Apotheker left just months after taking the job with one heck of a compensation package.

This week was Meg Whitman's turn to take the spotlight. Following early support for the Autonomy deal prior to taking over as CEO, Whitman had to reverse course and absorb an $8.8 billion writedown on its Autonomy purchase due to "serious accounting improprieties, disclosure failures, and outright misrepresentations at Autonomy Corporation." Whitman placed the blame solely on Apotheker and Shane Robinson, HP's former head of strategy, but didn't do a great job of distancing herself from the fact that billions of HP's hard-earned dollars once again went to waste.

To the corner... everybody!
What might be even more concerning is that under normal circumstances a team of persons responsible for the due diligence that goes into researching a potential merger would report to a chief financial officer or directly to a CEO. In HP's case, prior to Whitman, this team reported directly to Robinson, the chief of strategy. Whitman has changed that policy, but it's a little too late for current shareholders who've absorbed quite a beating.

To make matters worse, we already know that the PC industry is struggling. Dell's (DELL.DL) third-quarter report highlighted an 8% drop in large enterprise revenue and an 11% dip in public revenue as its fourth-quarter forecast fell short of Wall Street's expectations. This all comes on the heels of the first industrywide downturn in PC sales since 2001.

At the heart of this trend is a move toward mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, which are beginning to replace the need for a clunky PC. Even within laptops, Apple (AAPL 4.08%) has grown year-over-year MacBook sales in all but one quarter over the past five years while HP continues to lose ground. There just haven't been many positive takeaways for HP and its upcoming quarterly forecast of $0.68-$0.71 in EPS is well short of the $0.85 analysts had been expecting.

For HP, shareholders are tired of asking if it can get any worse, because somehow it always manages to.

Do you have a CEO you'd like to nominate for this dubious honor? Shoot me an email and a one- or two-sentence description of why your choice deserves next week's nomination, and you just may see your suggestion in the spotlight.

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