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A double-barrelled firm, now only in name
George Skaria

Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World''s Greatest Company
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August 24, 2007

As business biographies go, this one fits the bill perfectly: it is eulogistic, biased and pre-deterministic. The book not only recounts the life and career of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, the founders of Hewlett Packard, but also attempts to draw lessons for today's manager from the growth and development of the global computer corporation.

While one part captures interesting nuggets of their personal and family lives, the latter, while bringing out managerial learning, possibly needs to be understood in the right perspective.

For, it portrays Bill and Dave to be the world's best entrepreneurs who "built the world's greatest company". As the state of HP today reflects, that is contestable.

In terms of content and structure flow, the book can be broadly divided into three parts. The first deals with the childhood of the two founders, their studies, the people and mentors who impacted their thinking and their later lives, the key incidents in their early lives, how they met, their respective marriages and the beginnings of the company in a small garage. Essentially, historical recounting with huge doses of puff stuff.

But it also has some interesting bits of information like the fact that contrary to popular notion that they as partners in business were made in heaven, they had their share of dissimlarities and disagreements and also the fact that Hewlett was not a good student because he had a huge learning disability in dyslexia. How some of these obstacles were overcome makes interesting reading.

The second part, which makes up a significant portion of the book, deals with lessons in entrepreneurship and leadership from Hewlett Packard.

In essence, this undescores the "HP Way" of managing, something that has been captured in the past, if not in the same form, in other books too. Many of these are facets of good management in today's world like the importance of loyalty, cultural bonding in companies, the need for leaders to get personal with the employees like knowing them by their first names, Friday dressing, work-life balance, employees as owners, building long-term relationships and the globalisation of a corporation as early as the 1960s.

This part of the book also enunciates and details the first complete set of HP Corporate Objectives, circa 1966, which include profits, customers, field of interest, growth, employees, organisation and citizenship.

In effect, all of the above are best practices that many of today's forward-looking and leading corporations in India and overseas would naturally do.

What is interesting, however, is that the author seeks to bring out these in the historical context, that they were practised by Hewlett Packard way ahead of their times.

In sum, it gives a near perfect picture of a global corporation many decades back, much before many of today's global companies practised them.

One problem with such an argument comes out in the following and the last part of the book, which deals with the period of HP after Hewlett and Packard stepped down from their positions in the company, their successor Lew Platt moved out after being in charge and the phase when Carly Fiorina took charge of HP.

While this segment makes interesting reading because it is contemporary history and has details like the merger problems with Compaq and the large-scale downsizing that followed, the fact is that reader is left asking how one CEO in such a short time could dismantle all that the founders had painstakingly built over several decades, if it was a perfect corporation till just a little while back.

The other question that comes to mind is that, if indeed the HP Way was such a great management philosophy, its sustainability is shown to be under a cloud in the context of its recent history.

Importantly, what then are the lessons in building corporations that last, which can be learnt from HP's story. Essentially, the later part of the story also brings out the need to have safeguards that protect corporations, if and when needed, against the ill-effects of changing times.

In the global pantheon of corporations, Hewlett Packard no longer stands tall. How did this come about?

In sum, while the book Bill & Dave brings out rich information about the building of a great company, it also leaves out many questions unanswered.

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