Fence-Mending in HP Land
Posted by: Peter Burrows on December 08, 2005
I spent a gratifying morning in Palo Alto yesterday, at an event to celebrate the opening of a new museum at the newly renovated “birthplace of Silicon Valley”—the garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard began their company back in 1938. It wasn’t just the beautifully restored buildings that made it special, though that was part of it. The famous clapboard garage is truly as pedestrian as it can be, and the home where Packard and his new wife lived captured the sense of the time. Most surprising was the small one-room cabin where Hewlett lived as a bachelor for much of that year. We’re talking plain old metal cot, a nail in the wall to hang a shirt, and absolutely no insulation; the guy might as well have been camping out.
But far more interesting was the people-watching. I happened to arrive just as Walter Hewlett and his wife Esther were walking up from their home down the street. Walter repeated what he'd told me back when I interviewed him for a book I wrote about HP a few years back--that he hadn't been to the place in years. Turns out his father and Packard were uninterested--even a bit superstitious--about looking back at places from their past for fear of taking their eyes off the future. "Everyone lives somewhere when they get started in business; that's the way they looked at it," Walter said as we walked up to the house.
Of course, it was Walter that led the epic proxy fight to try to kill HP's acquisition of Compaq back in 2001--a fight that ripped asunder many decades-old bonds within the HP community. Yet on this crisp sunny morning, there he was mingling in a crowd with many of the key supporters of the deal, such as long-time HP CFO Bob Wayman, and fellow board members Patty Dunn and Jay Keyworth. I'm not saying all is entirely forgotten. I'd doubt that, as that fight got nasty in very personal ways. Hewlett felt that the board had largely ignored his concerns before okaying the deal. And Hewlett hadn't won any points with his boardmates for sueing them after the shareholders okayed the deal, in an effort to have it overturned.
But any rancor was blissfully absent in the days' events. HP old-timers that were consumed with frustration about the state of the company--and the value of their HP shares--a few years ago talked happily about what a great job the "the new guy" in the corner office was doing, and about rising morale among the workforce. Current and former executives told "Bill and Dave" stories to 26 current HP employees that had been flown in to witness the event, in the low-key, unadorned language of HP culture. The founders, both now gone, are still worshipped as heroes--not only as businesspeople and technologists, but even more for simply being exemplary human beings. But the worship is not of the adoring, starstruck variety that exists in many companies today. It's more often with off-color stories having to do with Packard's ferocious temper or Hewlett's mischeivousness.
Interestingly, I didn't hear any mentions of another former HP executive, Carly Fiorina. That's too bad. After all, it was Fiorina that decided to buy the property from the long-time owner back in 2000, and to okay the $1.7 million renovation. I suppose if she was still at HP's helm, some--maybe even yours truly--would have criticized the day's events as a crass marketing event. But she was right to do it.
Chalk this one up as a story of all's well that ends well. HPers are feeling fine, thanks in part to a soaring stock price and the leadership of Hurd. Fiorina, whereever she is, can take credit for pushing through the Compaq deal that set the table for him. And thanks to the renovation of this plain old home, which will be used mostly for corporate functions, now there's a place people can go to learn about two truly great men, and the admirable way of doing business they came up with.