HP board picks the wrong woman once more
Global manufacturer emulates 3000 schedule

HP girds for battle with activist investors

Sachs A report in the Wall Street Journal yesterday notes that HP has hired investment bank giant Goldman Sachs to create a strategy to hold off "activist investors." These are insitutional shareholders who vote as a block to force changes in a corporation's board of directors.

No such group has announced itself yet, but HP's lost $60 billion of valuation over the last year since the Mark Hurd ouster. After Leo Apotheker's firing, HP's valuation is now down to $46 billion. That would make it a large takeover target by a single firm (like Oracle). But investors could take over control of the board with much less than that figure in stocks. HP acquired Comaq for about $25 billion in a friendly 2002 takeover.

Quoting an unnamed source, the WSJ report notes

H-P has felt vulnerable to possible activist investor pressure amid questions about the company's performance and strategic direction, the people said. The concerns intensified earlier this month when Leo Apotheker was ousted as chief executive and replaced by Meg Whitman.

As a result, Goldman was recently brought on board to help H-P formulate defenses in case it becomes the target of shareholders seeking change, the people added. Typically, companies with such a concern put in "poison pills" – shareholder rights' plans that make takeovers more difficult for activist investors.

Hiring Whitman immediately to replace Apotheker -- then hearing Whitman rubber-stamp HP's strategy -- has investors worried. Meanwhile, HP's customers are pulling back on large deals. HP 3000 sites are only tied into HP plans if they're migrating to an HP environment, using HP's gear elsewhere, or still buying HP support for 3000s and MPE. Those are all long-term relationships, however.

At the recent HP3000 Reunion, we heard confirmation of HP's continued presence in supporting 3000s. Steve Suraci's Pivital Solutions, an all-3000 support firm, is still bidding against HP proposals to support 3000s, he said.

"We don't see the other third party support companies when we're approaching businesses," Suraci said at the CAMUS user group meet during the Reunion weekend. "Just HP, really. We thought at first they'd be out of this market by now."

A support contract is usually a multi-year agreement, although some of HP's offerings are worded more carefully in 2011, according to customers. But signing on for multiple years of business with a company using a poison pill to maintain board control -- this sounds like the kind of risk HP 3000 managers have resisted up to now.