Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (NYSE: HPE) investors may have relaxed too soon.
While HPE CEO Meg Whitman won't be the new Uber CEO, sources told the Wall Street Journal that she is making arrangements to leave the company and could depart as soon as this fall. Her potential departure is a significant concern for investors because she has been the leader (and face) of the company's turnaround efforts over the past six years.
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Whitman deciding to leave during her sixth year at the company would make sense, considering she laid out a five-year turnaround plan back in 2012, she might, therefore, see her job as done. Since Whitman was named HPE CEO on Sept. 22, 2011, the company's stock has risen about 36%.
Back in 2012, investors thought her five-year timeline was too long. "They were like, 'You've got to be kidding me. Five years?'" Whitman told the Journal. "I think they just didn't quite understand how deep the hole HP had dug itself."
In 2015, Whitman led the company's risky separation into two Fortune 100 companies: technology solutions company Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and printing and personal-computer business HP Inc..
Before helping HPE turn around its business, Whitman served as CEO of eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) for ten years, starting in 1998. When she departed in 2008, eBay's stock had climbed an impressive 186%. In addition, eBay had grown from 30 employees and $4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and $8 billion in yearly revenue.
In 2010, right before joining HPE, Whitman also made a foray into politics as the Republican Party's nominee for the gubernatorial race in California.
During the company's most recent earnings call on Sept. 12, Whitman tried to put rumors of her leaving to rest, claiming that she was committed to helping HPE on its road to recovery.
"I've dedicated the last six years of my life to this company, and there is more work to do," she said. "And I'm here to help make this company successful, and I'm excited about the new strategy. So, lots more work to do, and I actually am not going anywhere."
However, in the same earnings call, Whitman did admit that she was at least enticed by the open CEO position at Uber after its former CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down in June. "There has been some press," she said. "Listen, I thought -- I was called in very late in the Uber search, and I thought it was a very interesting business model."
Whitman said that Uber and eBay are both disruptive companies that rely on communities, of drivers or sellers. She said that the growth prospects for Uber reminded her of eBay's early years. With a valuation of $68.5 billion, San Francisco-based Uber is the most highly valued private start-up in the world.
The HPE CEO must have taken the Uber CEO search process seriously, considering she resigned as chairman of the HP Inc. board in late July, when she was first rumored to be among the candidates for the position.
So why didn't Whitman take the Uber job? She claims that it wasn't the right position for her. "I would say it really has nothing to do with HPE, which is quite special in its own right," she said during the earnings call.
However, The New York Times reported that she told Uber board members on Aug. 27 the conditions under which she would accept the CEO position, and they decided against her, choosing Expedia's Dara Khosrowshahi instead. Whitman maintains that she only met with Uber as a courtesy.
Whitman's ambition may be hitting a plateau at HPE. According to board intelligence solutions company Equilar, in 2014, the average S&P 500 CEO had served an average of 7.4 years and a median of 6.0 years.
Managers who worked with Whitman in the past told the Journal they could see why she might be getting restless at HPE. When she came to the company in 2011, it had 350,000 employees and was reporting $127 billion in yearly revenue. Now, the shrunken company has 52,000 staff and $34 billion in annual revenue.
In relationships, when one person is looking into other options, conventional wisdom says they already have one foot out the door. If Whitman is openly saying she considered Uber an "interesting business model" and met with its directors, shouldn't we assume she already has one foot out of HPE?
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