Carly Fiorina again tackles her legacy at Hewlett-Packard

When Carly Fiorina ran for U.S. Senate, opponents depicted the former corporate executive as a cold-hearted job killer, using her past statements like a noose around her neck.

Americans have no God-given right to a job, said the former Hewlett-Packard chief. When you’re talking about massive layoffs, sometimes they’re warranted. Off-shoring — shipping American jobs overseas — was “right-shoring.”

Now, though, running for president, Fiorina has softened her tone, acknowledging the human toll of lost jobs and explaining at greater length and depth the actions she took as a powerful Silicon Valley executive, including overseeing tens of thousands of layoffs.

It is a campaign within the 2016 campaign, an effort to recast Fiorina’s record and push back at her many critics, presenting her actions as a model of decisiveness — the kind, she says, the country sorely needs from its president.

“Some tough calls are going to be required,” Fiorina said during the recent Reagan library debate, a standout performance that has led to a surge in support in her bid for the GOP nomination. “When you challenge the status quo, you make enemies. I made a few.”

Indeed, there is no shortage of detractors — from her Democratic Senate opponent, Barbara Boxer, to rivals for the GOP nomination — eager to revisit her time at HP, which ended in Fiorina’s summary firing.

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Running in 2010, the year of a massive Republican wave, Fiorina was swamped by Boxer, a perennially endangered incumbent, who turned Fiorina's years at HP from the high point of a gilded resume into a series of brutal TV ads. Fiorina’s transition from bottom-line business chief to people-pleasing politician was a difficult one, and it showed.

But even harsh critics recognize her impressive intelligence and brilliant marketing ability. She is not, they say, one to make the same mistake twice and, as a presidential hopeful, Fiorina and her supporters have clearly learned from the missteps of her ill-fated Senate bid.

Supportive former HP employees have been encouraged to write friendly letters to newspapers in key states. A slickly produced hour-long ad, presented as a documentary and aimed at voters in Iowa and other early-voting states, describes Fiorina as “a Silicon Valley superstar” and portrays her performance at HP in a highly flattering light.

Leslie Shedd, the spokeswoman for a political action committee that produced the pro-Fiorina film, said it was easy to anticipate Democrats replicating Boxer and attacking Fiorina's HP record. “I think it is really important to make sure voters get a full assessment of what really happened at Hewlett-Packard and why it was she was such transformative leader there,” Shedd said.

The picture at HP was not a pretty one.

After climbing the corporate ladder at AT&T and Lucent Technologies, its telecommunications equipment spin-off, Fiorina was hired as HP’s chief executive in 1999. In a stroke she became arguably the most powerful woman in the history of American business.

Her directive from HP’s corporate board was to shake things up and reinvigorate the lumbering Palo Alto tech titan, whose progress had stalled as the fortunes of other Silicon Valley companies surged.

“She was hired to blow the culture up ... to stir the pot, and she did that,” said Rob Enderle, a longtime industry analyst.

Fiorina set to work streamlining the sprawling company, known mostly for personal computers and its stodgy printer business. Some welcomed her burst of energy.

“When I first joined HP, I was very surprised how backward the company was. Like ancient,” said Meiyee Chang, who spent more than a decade at HP before leaving in 2007. “I felt she tried to modernize the company.”

But others soon turned on Fiorina, put off by her considerable wealth and self-promotional style — she hung a portrait of herself alongside those of the company’s revered founders — which clashed with HP’s history as a genial company with humble beginnings and an informal management structure. “I feel she destroyed the culture of my father's company,” David Woodley Packard said in a 2010 interview.

Layoffs — 33,000 by some estimates — and the outsourcing of jobs deepened the antipathy. Fiorina lasted until 2005, when she was ousted by HP’s board of directors over the company’s disappointing financial performance and disagreements over strategy. She received an exit package worth about $42 million, a lucrative sendoff that further damaged her image.

Fiorina has insisted that she created more HP jobs than she eliminated, though that is difficult to prove, given the number of employees who came and went through various acquisitions.

To supporters, she was little short of a visionary, who boosted revenues, reformed a once-plodding company and enabled HP to survive the dot-com bust that crippled so many other firms.

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One of her most prominent defenders is Thomas Perkins, a storied venture capitalist who supported Fiorina’s firing as a member of the HP board. The two have since patched their differences and Perkins appears in the pro-Fiorina documentary, blaming the company’s problems on a dysfunctional board of directors.

“Carly did simply a magnificent job of integrating” HP and Compaq Computer, he said of the 2002 merger with one of the company’s main rivals.

But many analysts say Fiorina and her boosters offer a revisionist history. They say the $25-billion purchase of Compaq, which accounted for most of the revenue growth that Fiorina boasts of, was an unmitigated disaster and note, among other things, that HP stock fell by more than 60% during her tenure. Rivals Dell, IBM and Microsoft performed considerably better.

Much of the criticism, though, relates to Fiorina’s personal style.

“She flashed her wealth too much,” said Enderle, the industry analyst, citing her purchase of corporate jets and appearance at company events in a luxury Mercedes. “It sent the wrong image. It sent the image that you had this royal CEO that was telling the employees to eat cake and was not feeling the pain.”

It’s the very image that plagued Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential campaign, when the GOP nominee and venture capitalist was painted by Democrats as a ruthless job killer.

If Fiorina, a long shot, were to win the GOP nomination, her record at HP could again be a focus of the general election campaign.

One of the chief strategists for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton is an admaker named Jim Margolis. He produced the spots for Boxer’s reelection bid.

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