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Whitman stabilized HP but real growth still looks far off

Whitman stabilized HP but real growth still looks far off

There’s no question that Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has been one of the best tech stocks to own of late, doubling last year and tacking on another 14% so far in 2014.

But some investors are starting to wonder if CEO Meg Whitman can truly deliver a second act after acing the initial turnaround. HP, no longer teetering on the brink of extinction, still isn’t growing overall and remains a minor player at best in many hot area such as phones and tablets, cloud services and network security.

Whitman, the former eBay (EBAY) CEO who took over the company in September 2011, has slashed employee ranks, paid down debt and reorganized the company into more-logical segments, or, as noted last August, made HP less stupid.

She’s also talked up new offerings including servers based on low-cost, low-power chips; a laptop running Google’s (GOOG) Chrome operating system and a mysterious 3-D printer effort coming soon. Criticizing existing 3-D printers as slow and poor quality, Whitman told shareholders at HP’s March 19 annual meeting: “We believe we have solved both these problems and we’ll be making a big technology announcement in June around how we are going to approach this.” (A few days later, HP said she had misspoken and the 3-D unveiling would be by the end of October).


Expectations are rising on Wall Street, where 11 analysts rate the stock a “buy” now, up from just three a year ago, according to FactSet Research. Collectively, analysts who follow the company have been raising their profit estimates, with HP now expected to make $3.70 per share for fical 2014 ending in October, a 4% increase from 2013, and $3.82 the following year.

But the hyped 3-D printer foray is just the latest future project Whitman has trotted out to get investors salivating. In 2012, she was talking up amazing tablets that would storm the corporate market. And early in 2013, a new server technology dubbed Project Moonshot was all the rage. Neither has led to much revenue for HP yet, however.

And, overall, Whitman had been promising that 2014 finally would be a year of revenue growth for all of HP’s various businesses. But she backed off that prediction last fall.

After Whitman took over in 2011, she moved to shut down HP’s less-than-stellar tablet effort at the time. The quirky devices ran WebOS, a good-looking if sluggish operating system acquired with the purchase of Palm. A fire sale on the discontinued tablets helped push HP into the top five sellers by market share at the end of 2011, according to IDC.

And so at HP’s analyst day in October, 2012, Whitman highlighted tablet sales to corporations as a major opportunity. “This is going to take a little time because, as we learned last summer, you get these tablets into the enterprise, they play with them for a while, it's a relatively long sales cycle,” she said. “But when it hits, I think it should hit pretty big, which is why I think that will contribute to the 2014 financials, perhaps even more than it does in 2013.”

But HP’s subsequent efforts, most based around Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows 8 platform, have flopped and the company sold fewer tablets last year than in 2011, according to IDC. HP hasn’t made it back into the top five sellers since, says IDC, as Apple (AAPL), Samsung and Amazon (AMZN) took the top spots, trailed by Lenovo and Asus.

It’s been the same with Project Moonshot. A year ago, Whitman saw the cheap, flexible servers, which can pop in different modules to address different needs, as a 2014 source of revenue. “We are excited about this,” she said in February 2013. “So it will build through the year, but frankly it won’t hit its real, I think sort of full potential till 2014.”

But as the year wore on, Whitman cut back on these projections. A few weeks ago, at a Morgan Stanley tech conference, she pushed the project’s payoff out even farther. “I don't expect [a] big contributor to revenue in 2014 for Moonshot, but [in] 2015 we do,” she said.

Even some of HP’s bright spots over the past year have come with a dark side. Server sales picked up after HP cut prices and reduced its profit margins. With Dell having gone private and Lenovo buying IBM’s (IBM) low-end server business, price pressures could get even more intense. PC sales got a boost from Microsoft’s Windows XP phaseout, but this is a short-term effect that will fade later this year.

And some problems still loom — HP may have known more about alleged problems at Autonomy, its disastrous $11 billion software acquisition, than previously disclosed, the Financial Times reported last month. The deal closed before Whitman took over but she has made public accusations against Autonomy executives. HP says that, despite evidence in newly surfaced documents, it had no early indication of Autonomy’s “accounting improprieties, misrepresentations and disclosure failures.”

Wall Street has already rewarded Whitman for saving HP from oblivion. Now the question is whether she can move it forward.