Andy Isherwood, the UK managing director of HP, is a tough man to interview. It wasn't that it was a tough interview - on the contrary, he is very approachable. It was more that it was difficult to get him to deviate from the HP corporate message.
HP is a company with considerable strengths and considerable problems. Isherwood can’t avoid the issues, but he acknowledges them in a remorselessly upbeat way.
The company, he says, is halfway through a five-year turnaround plan and everything is (obviously) going great guns. But then most tech companies that survived the 2008 crash have seen some recovery.
And for HP, the issues remain, including U-turns on whether to stay in or leave the PC market in the face of a dramatic decline in the number of units sold, a stumbling mobile strategy and question marks over its success in the far higher margin services sector.
Its 2008 purchase of EDS, one of the world’s largest outsourcing companies, was far from trouble-free and continues to be challenged. In the UK, for example, Isherwood is facing issues such as government restrictions on contract size, so the questions about how the IT giant continue to recoup its fortunes over the remaining two years of the plan remain.
The UK MD role is a new one for Isherwood, who describes himself as an “evangelist” of HP. He was appointed to the role in October 2013, but Isherwood joined the tech giant 25 years ago straight out of university with a business studies degree - shunning a job offer from IBM because HP paid a bit more - when the company was worth a mere $4 billion and employed 70,000 people. When he came on board, HP’s founders, David Packard and William ‘Bill’ Hewlett, were still around to eat lunch alongside employees in the canteen.
This demonstrates how “incredibly personable” the company’s founders were, according to Isherwood, who describes their management style as “management by walking around, management by objectives”.
During his time at HP, Isherwood has seen the company grow to a $125 billion company with around 300,000 staff. Though the latter number is expected to fall after the company announced 16,000 job cuts in its latest quarterly results. Isherwood claims that current CEO Meg Whitman has brought the founders’ traits “back” to HP, when she joined from online auction giant eBay in 2011.
“She truly is a people person and she truly is a humble person,” Isherwood gushes. “She will listen to everyone and anyone.”
When asked how Whitman differs to past HP CEOs, it is telling who Isherwood name checks - and who he fails to mention.
“I’ve seen a few CEOs, from John Young (1978 -1992) to Carly [Fiorina] (1999 - 2005), all the way through to Meg,” he says, omitting Mark Hurd (2005-2010) and the CEO Whitman replaced, Leo Apotheker (2010-2011).
Hurd, now president at rival Oracle, resigned from his position as HP CEO in August 2010 after he was investigated by the company over allegations of misconduct. He was accused of sexual harassment by a former independent contractor at HP, Jodie Fisher, and although HP’s formal investigation of the allegations cleared Hurd of sexual harrassment, it found that he had at times submitted inaccurate expense reports that were intended to conceal or had the effect of concealing his close personal relationship with Fisher.
Apotheker, who joined from SAP, lasted less than a year in the HP role. Many of his decisions and announcements as CEO were unpopular, such as talk of spinning off HP’s PC division, which sparked a major downturn in the company’s stock price.
But Isherwood has nothing but praise for the “down to earth” and “collaborative” Whitman.
“She listens intensely to customers and partners, she focuses on the external not the internal, and she’s built a team which is of strong team players rather than strong solo players,” he says.
“We’re seeing that increasingly filter down the organisation. ‘One HP’ is about what we can achieve together, not about what we can achieve in printing or in services.”
The fact that HP is on track to achieve the goals Whitman set out in the five-year turnaround plan she implemented when she joined is an indication of the new management style working, says Isherwood.
“We’re in year three, we’re growing in year three, that’s what we said we’d do, and importantly we’re delivering on the technology roadmap and innovation,” he says.