Meg Whitman fluffs HP's age, gets corrected by shareholder

The CEO faced a few tough questions at HP's annual shareholder meeting but said she has a plan to get HP back on track

Meg Whitman has spent her first six months at Hewlett-Packard talking to customers and employees and learning how the business works, but apparently she didn't get much of a history lesson.

"HP will be 70 in 2014," she said proudly at HP's annual shareholder meeting Wednesday. Few Silicon Valley companies can boast such longevity, she said, and her job now is to set HP up for "the next 70 years."

It's a line Whitman's been using for the past few months as she tries to drum up enthusiasm for the new, reinvigorated HP she hopes to build. The only trouble is, it appears to be wrong, as an elderly shareholder gently pointed out to her.

"I believe HP was founded in 1939," he said during the question-and-answer session after her talk. Wouldn't that make HP 75 in 2014?

According to the history section of HP's website, he's right.

"For three or four months I've been telling people we're going to set HP up for the next 70 years because we're 70 years old, and you're the first person to correct me on that so thanks very much," Whitman said.

A few other shareholders suggested they'd like HP to be more like Apple. Apple's market capitalization is currently 10 times that of HP's, one man noted, saying Apple achieved that "in a market where we used to be dominant."

"I think we all have to applaud Apple for their success," Whitman replied gamely. Steve Jobs was "probably the business genius of our generation," she said.

"There's a little company in Cupertino not far from here which has stores that simply sell their own products," another shareholder said, also referring to Apple, "and people line up the night before to buy its products. I would like to see HP have its own store."

"It could also have a repair capability," he continued, "so when the printer head fails on my printer, I don't have to wait two or three weeks for a new one to arrive from your facility on the East Coast."

HP just opened a store in Brazil, Whitman said, and it's improving its website to make it easier for people elsewhere to buy its products.

"But you can't fix my printer head over the Internet," the man said.

They were light-hearted moments in an otherwise serious meeting at which shareholders voted to approve HP's board, and Whitman reiterated her plans for returning HP to its glory days.

Its core business will continue to be selling infrastructure gear -- servers, storage and networking, Whitman said. The company didn't buy Autonomy to transform HP into a software company, she said, but software helps solve customer problems and creates longer-lasting relationships.

But HP has relied too much on acquisitions, Whitman said. In the future it will make "selective acquisitions, at a much lower level" than in the past.

She implied the company will make at least a few layoffs as part of its ongoing reorganization -- something many already suspected after HP announced earlier today that it will combine its printer and PC divisions.

HP added a lot of sales executives and hasn't gotten the returns it was looking for, she said, "so we're going to reorganize ... and make sure we get our costs back in line with our revenues."

That's important because HP needs to find money that it can invest in research and development, spark some innovation again and get back on track, she said, reiterating her message of the past few weeks.

"In a few years, when we say 'HP' to a CIO at a big company, I want them to say back to us, 'They're the very best in converged infrastructure," she said.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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