HP's curious choice

September 30, 2010: 7:05 PM ET

HP's board of directors could have taken the easy way. It could have named a CEO with a proven track record of growth or innovation. Experience that spanned the bulk of HP's revenue base would have been a plus too. It could have promoted someone from within. It might have found a young, up-and-coming executive at a major competitor who was champing at the bit to be a CEO but was blocked by one of the old guys at the top. It could have found someone with a job.

It didn't.

Instead, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) on Thursday named former SAP (SAP) executive Léo Apotheker its new president and CEO. Apotheker, 57, served for a short time as CEO and much longer in other top roles at SAP, a company that has had its clock cleaned by the leaders in business software, Oracle (ORCL) and IBM (IBM). He left involuntarily (choose your jargon) last year after spending more than two decades at SAP.

When HP hired Mark Hurd in 2005, the only knock against him was that the company he ran, NCR (NCR), was a fraction of HP's size. Hurd countered that NCR also was a global company, just smaller, and that his signal achievement, spearheading the growth of Teradata (TDC) (which NCR later spun off as a public company), gave him good experience for HP's enterprise hardware business. Hurd also was a master cost cutter and stock price booster at NCR, feats he predictably and successfully repeated at HP.

Apotheker, by comparison, has little that makes him an obvious choice to head what has become the world's largest technology company by revenue. His entire expertise is in the enterprise market, selling to big companies. He has none in the middle market or, importantly, the consumer market, where HP is the dominant player in PCs and printers.

Reaction among people who know Apotheker and SAP was swift. "Idiotic," declared one European investor. "Astonishing" said a veteran U.S. software executive. HP's stock dipped 3% in after-hours trading. Seeing as HP doesn't plan to discuss its selection until  Friday morning, investors have the rest of the evening to talk among themselves about what this all means. One question they might ask in the morning is why Apotheker isn't starting until Nov. 1. That is the first day of HP's new fiscal year, but who cares? Hurd started immediately. And he had to leave a job to do so.

Peter Goldmacher, a software analyst with Cowen & Co., thinks Apotheker gets a bad rap for SAP's problems, given that founder and longtime CEO Hasso Plattner still has a heavy hand at what goes on at SAP. "Leo was offered the driver's seat when the car already had crashed through the guard rail and was in the chasm," says Goldmacher, who faults SAP for standing still while Oracle and IBM were consolidating the business software market.

Odd though its choice is, the HP board must have found something to like in Apotheker. MySQL founder Marten Mickos sees plenty of good. "He's a sharp guy who knows a lot, has clear views, is no-nonsense and  a good listener," says Mickos, who dealt with Apotheker when MySQL (later bought by Sun, now owned by Oracle) partnered with SAP. "He's respectful in his way of dealing with people, both big bosses and small guys alike. I get the feeling he is a brilliant leader."

Apotheker will need all these qualities and more to make a go of it at HP.

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N.B. What about Ray Lane, HP's new non-executive chairman of the board? As I wrote when I poured cold water on the prospect of Lane being a candidate for the CEO spot, the ex-Oracle president has been out of the enterprise software game for a decade. Lately he has been focused mostly on alternative energy, not yet successfully from a venture-capital-return perspective. Lane is highly valued around Kleiner Perkins for the management and operations advice he gives startups as well as for his many high-level connections in corporate America. In that regard he'll be an asset to HP. He's not, however, known as a champion of corporate governance, something this board could have used around now. HP's release trumpeted that Lane has served on the boards of more than 20 public and private companies, but he's not currently on the boards of any megacap concerns that remotely resemble HP.

By the way, so much for sources who told The Wall Street Journal almost two weeks ago that HP's board was leaning toward an insider and that a decision was imminent, which generally means soon. So much also for my predictions, which at least were sourced solely to my brain.

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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