The Hewlett-Packardisation of Silicon Graphics?

The first time I interviewed Rick Belluzzo, back in the summer of 1995, we were sitting poolside in San Diego, California, soaking up the sun and sipping iced tea as palm trees swayed in the breeze. Belluzzo was running Hewlett-Packard's computer products business at the time, and making a name for himself as the likely successor to HP CEO Lew Platt.

The second time I interviewed Belluzzo, last week, we were in the posh Metropolitan Club just off of New York City's famed Fifth Avenue, an elegant venue with overstuffed chairs, grand staircases and crystal chandeliers. Belluzzo this time was running all of Silicon Graphics (SGI), and making a name for himself as that company's hot new CEO.

If you know anything about the cultures of HP and SGI, you can appreciate the irony of the two settings.

HP is known for being a little stiff, a reputation that no doubt stems from its roots as an instrument company where attention to precision and accuracy and cold, hard specifications is what life is all about. SGI, on the other hand, has a reputation for being sort of a laid back outfit where zany engineers and overzealous marketers haven't traditionally worried as much as they might about how their cool ideas mesh with the reality of bringing products to market under a viable business model.

It's not too surprising, then, that Belluzzo's new corporate slogan for SGI is "Get Serious". Given that the company's stock is trading at about a third of what it was when I first met Belluzzo in the HP days, it's clear he had to tighten things up a bit to try to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Ed McCracken. To help him whip the company back into shape, Belluzzo, a 22-year HP veteran, brought in Steve Gomo, a 24-year HP veteran, to serve as SGI's senior vice-president and chief financial officer. He has other positions he wants to fill, and while he says he's not specifically trying to recruit his old HP cronies, Belluzzo indicated that no one should be surprised if more HPers pop up in the SGI executive suite.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Belluzzo has undertaken the Hewlett-Packardisation of Silicon Graphics. In fact, that's the last thing in the world he wants to do.

While he has high praise for Hewlett-Packard and for what the company taught him over the course of those 22 years, Belluzzo says he had decided he was going to hit the road even before SGI recruited him. And while he suspects that HP CEO Platt sensed something beforehand, he says to this day he doesn't know how Platt felt about his move to SGI.

"Lew doesn't express his views. He kind of holds his cards close," Belluzzo says, appearing to suggest that it is that inwardness that has trickled down through the company and created that rather staid environment.

"HP has incredible infrastructure and attention to detail, but not a lot of spirit and passion," he says. "It's the culture -- I think it's gotten even more conservative, more internal." Consequently, he found himself fighting a battle to get the company to be more aggressive and to break away from the slow, methodical corporate mindset of the old instrument culture. And he apparently got tired of fighting.

"Silicon Graphics is just the opposite -- more energy, more risk taking. At SGI we always think we can do more than we can really do. At HP we could always do more if we really took the risk," Belluzzo says. "I've told people I don't want to make the place like HP -- I like the casual style, the openness. What we have to work on is a little more structure."

But not too much more, one would hope. And let's not get too serious. Once spirit and passion are stifled, they're awfully hard to revive.

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