Hewlett-Packard overhaul exposes underdog status

By Jordan Robertson

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Aug. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

SAN FRANCISCO — Hewlett-Packard, one of the world's largest technology companies, finds itself the underdog as it ditches most of its consumer businesses to become more like the well-oiled, corporate-focused machines of rivals IBM and Oracle.

HP will no longer make smartphones and tablet computers and wants to leave the PC business after spending a decade assembling itself into a technology conglomerate by buying such companies as computer maker Compaq Computer for $19 billion in 2002 and smartphone pioneer Palm for $1.8 billion last year.

HP's stock plunged 20 percent on Friday, a day after the restructuring announcement. That's a strong signal that investors are doubtful about HP's ability to thrive without businesses that have helped set it apart from rivals. Even though the PC division that HP wants to sell or spin off is the company's least profitable, it accounts for nearly a third of revenue.

Rumors have been circulating for months that HP might try to exit the PC business, which is under pressure from tablet computers and smartphones — the ones made by Apple, not HP. Analysts generally agree that HP would be better off in shedding a thinly profitable business that faces fierce competition.

However, their anxiety spiked because of how HP went about it. Some analysts worry that CEO Leo Apotheker may have done irreversible damage to the PC business by throwing its future into question. He said HP is merely considering possibilities for the business and may not shed it at all after 12 to 18 months of exploration.

That uncertainty could lead to an exodus of customers, which would lower the price that HP could fetch for the division if it's able to sell it. Or it could damage its value so much that HP isn't able to unload it and is stuck with a business in decline.

Even if HP does shed its PC unit, it's left with businesses that are already under pressure. In many cases, those businesses are playing catch-up to IBM, Oracle and Cisco Systems Inc., which is going through its own restructuring.

HP would be left with only one major business in which it is the clear leader — printers and printer ink, a longtime cash cow. It would also still sell servers, but it is running even with IBM in that area.

In other, more lucrative areas, HP is far behind. IBM is the market leader in technical services. Cisco is the leader in computer networking equipment. IBM, Oracle and Apotheker's former employer, SAP AG, rule in business software.

Losing the PC business would leave a giant hole. In the past nine months, for instance, it supplied nearly $30 billion of HP's revenue of $95 billion. And that doesn't include ancillary sales, such as selling a printer to a company that has already bought a PC. HP will likely lose some leverage in those relationships, and other divisions could suffer as a result.

Tablets and smartphones were a much smaller factor. HP doesn't break out that category and had included it in a catch-all category of corporate investments, which supplied just $416 million in revenue since the fiscal year started in November. But the businesses were clearly in trouble. That division lost nearly twice that amount during the same period.

Jayson Noland, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co., said the restructuring plan raises questions about HP's viability.

He has downgraded HP stock to "neutral," after HP's latest quarterly results showed falling profit margins in its services and printer and ink businesses. Those are HP's most profitable divisions and would take on an even more prominent role after the restructuring. Noland said HP no longer would be a "safe haven" when the economy is rough. The transformation plan, he said, is expensive, protracted and risky.

In announcing the sweeping changes, HP is trying to emulate IBM.

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