HP CEO sees opportunity in rivals’ ‘instability’

HP CEO Meg Whitman

HP CEO Meg Whitman

Call it a reminder that everything changes. HP – which two years ago had competitors circling it as it went through restructuring drama and rapid-fire executive changes – says it sees an opportunity to cash in on turbulence at some of its major competitors.

CEO Meg Whitman, speaking at an analyst conference, suggested HP has gone from the hunted and the hunter, and will seek to gain ground due to instability cause by IBM’s decision to sell its x86 server business to Lenovo, and the recent privatization of Dell.

“We think there is a real near-term opportunity for HP to actually gain share among some of our competitors who appear to be a little stable than we do right now,” Whitman said. “We look like the paradigm of stability in the industry right now, and we’d aim to capitalize on that.”

Stability has long been among Whitman’s biggest goals since she became head of the company after the short but tumultuous era of Leo Apotheker. In fact, the company’s own recent history heavily informs Whitman’s thinking on this subject. In August 2011 – months before she would ultimately become HP CEO – then-chief Apotheker made an ill-thought-out announcement that HP may (or may not) look to get out of the PC business as part of a growing focus on software solutions. The market did not look favourably upon the wishy-washy “announcement,” and competitors, Dell and Lenovo most notably, were quick to jump on it and pronounce it at opportunity for them to make gains at the expense of HP’s instability.

“I’ve learned about his business, through our own touch experience, that instability is not our friend,” Whitman said.

But with IBM getting out of the hardware business, Lenovo swallowing much of Big Blue’s server business, and Dell working through the changes required by its decision to go private, she sees an opportunity to prey on opponents in flux, as those opponents once did when HP was in flux. Also, it makes sense for HP to strike now, before the newly-strengthened Lenovo can solidify its position as a competitor across more of HP’s primary lines of business.

“My view is that Lenovo will be a very strong competitor over the long term. But I do think there is a near-term opportunity for us to gain share given that we have consistency on our side.”

But Whitman’s later comments in the same presentation to analysts offer an interesting question – is HP itself, two years into a turnaround journey Whitman says will take at least five years, stable enough to cash in on this perceived moment of weakness by two key rivals? Last month, the company announced another round of layoffs, and Whitman said “there is more work to be done” when it comes to cutting costs and gaining efficiency.

Can a company that is still re-structuring itself, with more work admittedly to be done, effectively tackle competitors on issues around instability? Particularly one with HP’s checkered recent past in terms of its own stability? Whitman clearly believes there is an opportunity, and that her efforts to steady the ship have bought the company enough credibility around its own direction that it can profit from changes in direction by its major rivals.