Nearly two weeks after the Hewlett-Packard (HP) board ousted Mark Hurd, CEO of the computer and printermaker, the whole ordeal is still raising more questions than it has answered. An internal probe about a sexual-harassment claim against Hurd, made by marketing consultant Jodie Fisher, concluded that Hurd did not violate HP’s sexual-harassment policy. Yet Hurd paid Fisher a settlement. Some ex-employees are griping that no one liked Hurd anyway. Did this situation serve as a cover to get rid of an unpopular, if effective, boss?
Over the next few weeks, more info about the Hurd firing will surely leak out. Some of it might even be scandalous. But the bottom line for HP is that he’s gone. For Hurd, meanwhile, the saga raises even more intriguing questions. Will this guy ever work again? And if so, where?
Executive recruiters agree that unless some more sordid information arises, Hurd will find another gig. “I think Mark Hurd will land another CEO spot,” says Robert Brudno, the founder and managing director of Savoy Partners, an executive-search firm. Adds Brudno, who specializes in CEO recruitment: “There is a shortage of talented operating CEOs. A company with its own flaws might be able to forgive Mark’s. On the scale of what other CEOs have done, this pales in comparison. In the continuum of liars, cheaters and stealers, and someone as clean as they come, he’s somewhere in the middle.” (See why HP had to oust Hurd.)
The middle is not a bad place to be. According to the Wall Street Journal, Hurd has told acquaintances that he received a call about a job the day after he left HP. “I don’t think his accomplishments at HP were phony,” says Brudno. “His predecessor [Carly Fiorina, the Republican nominee in this year’s California Senate race against incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer] had a persona that was fed and managed. Hurd didn’t have that. The ability to deliver results without that facade that CEOs put out there is a rare commodity.”
Still, Hurd might have to sit on the sidelines for a bit. No firm wants a fresh p.r. headache. But for any company itching for a turnaround, a Hurd hire might be irresistible. “A year ago, he was unattainable,” says Brudno. “Now, he has a clear motivation to prove everybody wrong.” Given Hurd’s hefty severance package from HP — valued at between $40 million and $50 million — he’s probably hurting more for a second chance than an outrageous salary. Some company can probably get him at a relative discount.
So what companies could use a Hurd? “He seems to be the hard-ass nobody likes,” says one senior IT executive. “He was widely disliked by his senior-management team not just for being hard but because some felt, I think, that he humiliated them in meetings. But maybe this is what it takes for some people to get off their asses. One company which could use a boost is Microsoft. They are the perennial giants who can’t seem to get any mojo in the fight against Apple and Google. Internally, they are in love with techno-speak and complexity but seem to forget the customer.”
This executive has always been impressed by Hurd’s mastery of minutiae. And remember, Hurd did not rise through the hi-tech ranks. He ran an ATM manufacturer before taking over HP and is viewed as pretty versatile. “With Hurd, you wouldn’t be getting a tech guy,” says David Costanza, an organizational-sciences professor at George Washington University. “You’d be getting a reorganization guy, a restructuring guy. His skill set is not in content, it’s in process.” Costanza notes that Louis Gerstner, the man credited with turning IBM from a hardware outfit to a full-service consulting conglomerate, had previously run RJR Nabisco. General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre led a bankrupt company to profitability, though with the help of the government. He used to run AT&T.
Couldn’t a Sears or General Electric or, heck, even a Walmart, use a guy with Hurd’s operational, if not ethical, expertise? Some recruiters insist he might not need a rebound job at a smaller company or a COO-lever position at a bigger place before securing the top job at a high Fortune 500 firm. But no one doubts he can make a triumphant return. “No CEO is perfect,” says Charles Wadlow, President of CRW Executive Search Consultants. “And when something like this happens, there will be a fall from grace. But on Hurd’s overall executive career, I think this is just going to be a little blip.”