In the respective landscapes of corporate America and Wall Street, it takes a lot for any CEO to become so powerful, so respected, so venerable that investors spend considerable time fretting over his eventual departure. The marquee examples are few and far between. Regardless of whether you own Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) shares, you probably know how important Steve Jobs is to the company. The charts show as much. Apple's near-term performance after Jobs took a leave of absence for health reasons a few years ago left a lot to be desired.
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Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A, BRK.B) is another example. Warren Buffett is one of the most legendary investors of all time and his business acumen and stock-picking prowess have helped some long-time Berkshire shareholders become multimillionaires from owning just a few Berkshire shares. The reality is it's hard to be an all-star CEO, let alone a hall-of-fame-caliber CEO like Buffett and Jobs.
Now former Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) CEO Mark Hurd was no Buffett or Jobs, but Wall Street seemed to like him, and his resignation amid sexual harassment allegations (those have been dropped) and an internal probe that pulled up inaccurate expense reports is not the best of news for HP shareholders. In the five years since Hurd took the helm at HP, the shares doubled (that's before last Friday's after-hours plunge) and revenue rose to $114.6 billion from $80 billion.
It's clear that Hurd leaves HP in far better shape than he found it, although that isn't saying much, but any missteps by his successor could open the door for a number of tech titans to pilfer market share from HP. Let's have a look at a few companies that could benefit if HP falters in the post-Hurd era.
Bet on Blue
Through Hurd's acquisitive ways, HP evolved from a purveyor of personal computers and printers to the second-biggest provider of technology services behind fellow Dow component International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM). That makes IBM a logical place to turn for investors looking for a stock that could benefit it HP loses its way. Actually, it can be argued that HP hasn't been all that successful in challenging IBM. Over the past two years, HP shares are down 20% while IBM is up by 20%.
IBM recently announced a new line of mainframe computers aimed at upping the ante in the competition with Dell (Nasdaq:DELL) and HP. These new mainframes aren't cheap - they range in cost from $1 million to $40 million - but they could be just the elixir IBM needs to pilfer some HP customers.
HP trades for just over eight times forward earnings and IBM is at 10 times, so the valuation discrepancy isn't big, but HP's dividend is paltry in both dollar terms and yield. In other words, IBM may have been the better bet even before Hurd's dubious departure.
Cisco May Be Smiling
Once upon a time, Cisco (Nasdaq:CSCO) and HP were partners in the integrated circuits market, but that relationship ended in acrimonious fashion earlier this year. Even before the end of the partnership, Cisco was probably irking HP by jumping into the blade servers market in 2009. HP countered by launching the ProCurve line to directly steal customers from Cisco. HP's acquisition of 3Com was viewed by some analysts as a way for the company to better compete with Cisco.
HP paid $2.7 billion for 3Com to bolster its data center offerings, but Cisco is one of the more acquisitive companies in Silicon Valley and won't be shy about going that route to beat HP. Cisco is another example of a company that has a CEO (John Chambers) that Wall Street loves and it would appear, for the moment at least, that things are far more steady at the top of Cisco than they are at HP. Not to mention Cisco is up 10% in the past year, while HP is now in the red.
Don't Forget About Accenture
When HP bought EDS in 2008 to bolster its IT services business to better compete with IBM, speculation swirled that Accenture (NYSE:ACN), at the time the third-largest provider of IT services, would be next to be acquired. That's not surprising because at the time Accenture ranked as the most profitable of the IT services providers. In more recent news, Accenture is competing with HP and IBM for a multibillion dollar contract from India's Bharti Airtel.
HP and Accenture already have an uncomfortable relationship (to put it delicately) thanks to allegations that HP paid kickbacks to the accounting and consulting firm in order to secure work on government projects. HP agreed to settle the suit with the Department of Justice on August 2. Legal issues aside, Accenture also has exposure to the booming cloud computing phenomenon, providing investors with a compelling reason to take a look at the stock.
Prior to Hurd's exit, Accenture and HP had performed in line with each other over the past year, so this could be a name that is poised to jump if HP can't find some stability at the top.
The Bottom Line
Yes, it's hard to deny HP shares performed well under Hurd's stewardship, but that's taking into account his five years at the helm. As we've mentioned here, the past two years aren't the least bit impressive. Despite this, in 2008, Hurd was the fourth-highest-paid CEO in the U.S., while HP was down almost 30%. HP shareholders even footed the bill for Hurd's use of a private jet and other excessive indulgences. All of that for a guy who can't fill out a expense report and who cost investors 20% over two years. Whether Hurd really was overrated remains to be seen, but if HP suffers long-term as a result of his departure, there are plenty of eager tech companies waiting in the wings. (To learn more, see our article on Technology Sector Funds.)
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