After the afterglow

I've been racking my brain trying to remember if I've ever met Mark Hurd, the former CEO of NCR who last week was named the new CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I believe I must have, because I spent some time at NCR's headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, back in 1996 to interview then-CEO Lars Nyberg and some other NCR hotshots. Hurd, a 25-year NCR veteran, was already a rising star, so chances are I interviewed him or at least bumped into him. But darned if I can remember.

I know I wasn't the only one scratching my head last week. No doubt there were as many variations of the "never heard of Hurd" quip in your office as there were in ours. And if you Googled "Mark Hurd" for some help, you had to sift through references to guys like the "college student, mountain biker and all-around geek living in Dallas, Texas" in order to find anything on HP's new CEO. He doesn't stand out in a crowd.

And that in itself is testimony to the wisdom of HP's board. It didn't cave in to expectations that HP would seek a celebrity CEO who wouldn't disappear in the afterglow of Carly Fiorina. Hurd's appointment demonstrates that the board learnt its lesson from going the celebrity route.

Hurd may not have made it onto a lot of magazine covers, but he has proved that he knows how to turn a faltering company around. Consider this: in 2002, NCR reported a net loss of $US220 million; in 2003, Hurd took the CEO reins from Nyberg; and in 2004, NCR reported a net profit of $US290 million.

Hurd also has three years as head of NCR's Teradata data warehousing division under his belt and is widely credited with its current success: in January, Teradata reported fourth-quarter revenue of $420 million, up 14 percent from the same quarter a year earlier. Those are the sorts of numbers that capture the attention of companies that are on the prowl for a CEO. And I have a hunch that the fact that Hurd had Teradata on his resume wasn't lost on HP's prowling board.

HP needed a CEO who knows the software business. When Fiorina got the boot, I argued that her successor would need to mould the company more in the image of IBM, with a strong consulting business. A stronger software business is a prerequisite for that and will be vital to HP's health. So Hurd clearly has a mandate: give HP a software future.

It's difficult to imagine that future without a much more compelling Linux vision than what HP has now. And if I were Hurd, I'd focus that vision squarely on Novell.

Novell's decision two years ago to adopt Linux as its NetWare migration path was the single most brilliant move by any technology vendor in the past five years. Almost overnight, that move, encompassing as it did the acquisitions of SuSe and Ximian, rescued Novell from a peripheral existence dependent on the stubbornness of an ageing band of NetWare die-hards. It transformed the company into one of the most formidable bastions of Linux technology on the planet.

But nothing is forever, and with the recent exits of vice chairman Chris Stone and CTO Alan Nugent, Novell lacks the leadership it needs to fend off suitors. HP needs to grab Novell soon, because if it doesn't, IBM just might.

Don't forget that Fiorina lost the consulting unit of PricewaterhouseCoopers to IBM in 2002. Losing Novell to IBM is the last thing HP needs you to read about when you Google "Mark Hurd".

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