Not only did Gerstner have to arrest the balance sheet decline, something that Howard had to do, too, but he had to reinvent the company, taking it away from being a Big Iron behemoth and turning it into a software and service company with a hardware tail.
That was far more difficult than we realize given that the company was hemorrhaging money, but Gerstner had brought in the late Jerry York, one of the most talented CFOs in the business, and York found ways to cut costs and build cash while Gerstner changed the company's mission entirely.
And that's where Whitman is right now. She is still stabilizing the balance sheet, however, going for a debt-free company while trying to reinvent the business as a cloud-based storage, intelligent software and security play with a personal computer and printer kicker. The problem is that the industry is moving so quickly to smarter, smaller devices that require very little in cost and tie into to inexpensive servers while at the same time the world's growth is outright shrinking when it comes to enterprise and personal computer spending.
I just don't know whether it's going too fast to make it so that Hewlett can transcend the riptides. Now, the stock of Hewlett-Packard has had a remarkable run since the time Whitman took the very viability off the table last year. It had touched $11 during the dark days of November before rallying into the close of the year, and it hasn't looked back, running up 78% for 2013, although it did hit $27 a week ago.That move made sense, although it is sobering to consider that all the stock has done is gone back to where she took over the job two years ago. Now the big issue is what turns the thing around. You would like to think it could be new products, which is something that Meg mentioned was responsible for the amazing Apple (AAPL) turn, but she quickly dismissed that as analogous given there's really no product in the hopper that is as revolutionary as the iPod, or the iPhone or the iPad. She does have some pretty cool products in the stable, including Moonshot, which is a leading server product that can harness the huge internet traffic for enterprises trying to keep up with the explosive growth. She does have, believe it or not, Autonomy, which is smart search software, an unappreciated and fast-growing niche for which the previous CEO simply and foolishly overpaid.