HP soap opera: Whitman in, Apotheker out

Updated: The anonymous sources were right: Meg Whitman has been named president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ), replacing fellow HP board member Leo Apotheker, confirming early reports from All Things D. Ray Lane is executive board chair.

The move follows several months of angst capped by high drama in August, when Apotheker confirmed reports that the company might sell or spin off its big PC business and nuke its tablet effort. That, along with his plan to drop more than $10 billion to buy Autonomy Corp. PLC, sparked a furor that has yet to subside.

It’s not clear that Whitman’s ascension will ease the situation. Several pundits weighed in publicly that HP’s problems are far too deep and complex to be solved by a new CEO alone.

“The notion that HP can be fixed by adding a celebrity chief executive is laughable,” Roger McNamee, managing director of Elevation Partners, told The New York Times‘ Dealbook. (s nyt)

The CEO of a San Francisco tech company concurred. “When you have a fundamental problem with your business model or your identity, you can bring in Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed and it won’t matter. If HP doesn’t know what [it is], its way forward, it needs more than a new CEO,” he said, requesting anonymity because his company does work with HP.

Whitman was lauded for building eBay (s ebay) into an online auction powerhouse, but her later years there were marred by a disastrous  $2.5 2.6 billion purchase of Skype in 2005. Two years later, eBay took a $1.4 billion write-off on that deal. 

Last week, HP board member Ray Lane defended the company’s strategy while acknowledging poor handling of communications. He spoke at a conference, stepping in at the last minute for Apotheker, who had been the scheduled speaker.

Apotheker had a rough ride. He came in after HP’s clumsy dismissal of his predecessor, Mark Hurd. No doubt Apotheker is partly responsible for the company’s dismal state, but he started in his CEO role in November 2010. HP’s problems were longstanding at that point, although they had been papered over by Hurd’s stewardship of HP’s stock price.

Again, many say the HP board, with its history of missteps going back at least five years to a “pretexting” affair in which the board  authorized spying on reporters, is a big part of the problem.

News that the HP board was thinking about ousting Apotheker leaked to Bloomberg News yesterday and was attributed to two company insiders. Many suspect that only high-level execs at the company–including the 15 board members–would be privy to such thinking.

As Barron’s points out, HP has lived and died by leaks for quite some time.

The news about the potential PC business spin-off also leaked ahead of the third-quarter conference call in August.

One HP watcher and shareholder said the leaks have reached fever pitch that is unusual even for HP. “This is the kind of spinning and leaking you see in a presidential campaign,” he noted.

Photo courtesy of whiteafrican’s photostream.

Image courtesy of Glassdoor.