Insiders detail Fiorina and Whitman’s fraught history

One Saturday in early 2008, the top economic advisors to then-presidential candidate John McCain gathered at his Virginia headquarters to hash out the details of a major economic address.

The attendees included Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who had supported McCain from the campaign’s earliest days, and Meg Whitman, the former head of EBay who had recently joined the team after her first choice, Mitt Romney, dropped his bid for the White House.

Whitman came armed with flip charts and markers, intending to run the meeting. The tension between the women was thick, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting who refused to be named discussing the dynamics of the campaign.

As the meeting began, Whitman turned to Fiorina, the first woman ever to run a Fortune 20 company, and tersely suggested that she take notes.

It was not the last time friction would arise between the two high-powered women, each used to running the show. But two years later, none of that was evident when they were thrust onto the same stage as the California Republican Party’s nominees for governor and senator. At a raucous rally the morning after their primary wins in June, Whitman said that career politicians “have just woken up to their worst nightmare — two businesswomen from the real world who … know how to get things done.”

Since then, Whitman and Fiorina have often been painted as one and the same, Silicon Valley duplicates now part of a rising sisterhood of leaders in the Republican Party. Although they are the first California women to serve as their party’s nominees for the offices, they are no more ideologically or stylistically similar than any two men who might occupy the roles. Nor did they run their companies in the same manner.

Professor Jennifer Chatman of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business said the recent tendency to lump them together glosses over their distinctions. “It’s like — OK, we’ve got two gals running now, they must have been putting their makeup on in the bathrooms together. Would we assume the same if one were a man or both were men?”

This account of Whitman and Fiorina’s connections is based on nearly two dozen interviews of Silicon Valley officials, political operatives and others who have worked with the women over the years or followed their careers closely, including eight who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the women’s power in business and politics.

Representatives for both women said that their relationship was friendly and without friction and that any suggestions to the contrary were fabrications. In the case of the economic meeting, Fiorina took notes “of her own volition,” spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said.

“Those are spun-up stories that have to be considered ridiculous,” said Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Whitman and Fiorina arrived in Silicon Valley about the same time, but with different business demands before them. Hired by EBay in 1998, Whitman over the next decade shepherded a $4.7-million startup with 30 employees into an $8-billion operation with 15,000 workers. Fiorina was hired in 1999 to shake up a $42-billion company with more than 84,000 employees, a venture that lasted until her dramatic ouster in 2005.

Whitman donned the polo-shirt-and-khakis attire of her employees and carried on the founders’ tradition of working in a cubicle. Fiorina was an Armani-clad dervish, jetting frequently to the many countries where HP did business.

Whitman’s image melded with the low-key, customer-centered ethos at EBay. The former management consultant had worked for Romney as a consultant at Bain & Co. before taking executive jobs at Disney, Stride Rite, FTD and Hasbro.

She was “an astute reader of situations” who was able to move “masterfully” through challenges like defining the relationship between the company and its sellers, Chatman said.

“What you saw was a deliberate matching to the needs of the organization,” Chatman said. “As a political being, she has some kind of intrinsic talent at that.”

Whitman’s homespun image resonated with the collectors and entrepreneurs who drove the online auction firm’s early success. She spoke of the collection of Beanie Babies on her desk (a favorite of early EBay enthusiasts) and of selling the sports equipment that her sons had outgrown on EBay. As the company grew increasingly successful, however, Whitman’s behavior changed.

“In the early days, Meg was very down to earth,” said a former EBay employee who worked closely with her and did not want to be named criticizing her. In the later part of Whitman’s tenure, the former employee said, Whitman was seen as pushing for personal gain and perks.

Whitman’s temper also became an issue. In an instance in 2007 that has created a dust-up in the gubernatorial campaign, she physically removed a subordinate from a conference room after a verbal dispute. The subordinate was paid a confidential settlement estimated at $200,000 and continues to work at EBay.

Fellow EBay employees said Whitman’s hair-trigger fuse was common knowledge at the company’s San Jose headquarters.

“She was known as very temperamental and yelled at nearly everyone,” said the former EBay employee.

One explosion occurred in 2006, according to a source with knowledge of the incident. EBay needed to replace a senior executive. During a conference call with a search firm, Whitman learned that the firm had erred by delaying contact with a candidate. As a result, EBay had probably lost him.

Whitman unleashed a string of expletives and accusations, pounded the conference table repeatedly with her fists and stormed out, slamming the door so hard that people nearby feared its glass would shatter, the source said.

“Her reaction was so violent and out of left field, it was bizarre,” said the source. “She started yelling, and when I say yelling, I mean when you’re yelling so loud that your voice distorts. She started swearing like a truck driver.”

Whitman spokesman Bounds said the incident “simply did not happen.”

Henry Gomez, a high-ranking executive at EBay under Whitman and now a senior advisor to her campaign, described her as someone who “could be very direct.”

“Meg rarely if ever curses,” said Gomez, who counseled Whitman after the dispute with the EBay subordinate. “She does not raise her voice. It’s not her style.”

Even Whitman’s critics acknowledge her role in the company’s success. EBay grew exponentially during her tenure, and she is credited with shepherding that growth, fiercely standing her ground in litigation and spearheading the lucrative purchase of PayPal, an online payment system. Other acquisitions, such as the Internet telephone company Skype, were deemed failures, and critics say spending in the final years of her tenure grew out of control. Whitman retired as planned in 2008.

As Whitman was establishing herself at EBay, Fiorina was taking the helm at Hewlett-Packard. The company founded by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in a Palo Alto garage in 1939 had, 60 years later, developed a reputation for being unresponsive to customers and bogged down by corporate consensus building. While Whitman sought to preserve EBay’s culture, Fiorina wrote in her memoir that at HP she viewed her role as that of a “change warrior.”

Her tenure was shaped by outsize ambition — from a $200-million rebranding campaign launched shortly after she arrived to her controversial decision to force HP’s merger with Compaq Computer Corp. She raised eyebrows by appearing in the company’s ad campaign, and was dubbed “Chainsaw Carly” by some in the company when she fired thousands of employees.

After announcing the 2001 Compaq merger, she waged a fierce battle over it with the families of the founders. In a speech, she said the merger represented “a choice between leading and following.”

“Carly recognized that HP — if it was ever going to get anywhere — had to infuse almost new DNA, and mix it in with the old ‘HP way,’ ” said former HP director Tom Perkins. “And lo and behold, HP is now the biggest computer company in the world and quite profitable.”

By the time that happened, however, Fiorina had been fired. In 2005, the board forced her resignation, frustrated that the company’s stock lagged in comparison to rivals, and by the merger’s failure to produce the profits that Fiorina had promised. Others have credited the current managers for the success cited by Perkins.

Whatever the case, the perception among some employees was that “she really did seem more interested in promoting Carly as opposed to really worrying about Hewlett Packard,” said Kimberly Elsbach, a professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

Over those years, Fiorina and Whitman were frequently named to the same lists of the top executives. They often spoke at the same conferences and were invited to some of the same panels by political leaders. But there is little evidence that their professional or social lives crossed.

“These aren’t women that spend much time lady-lunching,” said Katrina Garnett, a former software executive who now runs a luxury family travel website and is acquainted with both candidates.

But their paths collided frequently once both were on the McCain campaign. Their different styles were obvious to anyone who watched them on the campaign trail.

Fiorina’s ease on television made her one of McCain’s most prominent surrogates. Although she made some major gaffes, aides viewed her as a tough and generally disciplined messenger unafraid to go for the jugular. Whitman initially took a more behind-the-scenes role, leading the occasional campaign event but also digging into minute details of economic policy, several advisors said.

“Meg was more naturally the workhorse and didn’t really have any overwhelming desire to be on TV,” said Taylor Griffin, a McCain campaign advisor who initially focused on economic issues. While Fiorina was also engaged in policy, he said, “Carly was a lot of times the face of the policies.”

Both Griffin and a top McCain advisor, Charlie Black, who has helped Fiorina raise money, said there was no evidence of a rivalry. Griffin said he could not recall one instance in which they disagreed.

Others who dealt directly with the two women, however, described a difficult dynamic — two hard-charging former executives thrust into a campaign already swimming in personality conflicts.

Fiorina had carved out her turf starting in 2007, when Whitman was still a top fundraiser for Romney. Yet not long after the former Massachusetts governor dropped out in February 2008, Whitman was named McCain’s national co-chairwoman. Tensions surfaced within weeks, according to several sources who worked with both women at the time.

In May, Whitman was planning a Silicon Valley forum that would feature McCain, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and prominent California business executives, according to two people with knowledge of the event’s planning.

Fiorina tried to insert herself into event, said the sources, who would not speak openly because of their continued political involvement. “There was tension between the two about their roles at the event, back and forth about who would speak when, who would be the lead person.”

Ultimately, Whitman moderated the event and remained its co-chair — while Fiorina didn’t speak. (Spokeswoman Soderlund said Fiorina “never asked to be a part of it.”)

At the Republican National Convention in early September, Whitman’s and Fiorina’s mutual disdain was well-known among planners, according to a former Republican National Committee official who helped coordinate the convention and declined to be named because of fears of retribution.

Both women were scheduled to speak, first Whitman then Fiorina, on Sept. 3, 2008, the second-to-last night of the convention, before delegates officially nominated McCain. RNC aides who accompanied the women were told by their supervisors to make sure their paths didn’t cross, even as major political rivals mingled congenially behind the scenes.

“We had to keep them separate — that was our biggest priority,” the RNC source said. “Our main goal of course was to make sure there was a smooth nominating process. They became the biggest issue of that night.”

Representatives of both women said that was not true. Gomez, the senior advisor to Whitman, said he saw them together before and after their speeches. “They chatted as they always do, got caught up on everything from family stuff to what’s going on in the campaign,” he said.

The next time the women would publicly share such a forum was the GOP victory breakfast on June 9 of this year. They clasped hands, beaming as confetti showered down. When the audience began chanting Fiorina’s name, she quickly pointed to Whitman, shifting the cheer to “Meg! Meg!” Whitman deemed Fiorina “fabulous.”

But that approving tone had not been on display earlier that morning. Fiorina was caught on an open microphone questioning Whitman’s media strategy and calling her decision to appear on a Fox News show “bizarre.”

Fiorina apologized, and Whitman brushed aside the gibe. Both women say they look forward to campaigning together.