A Pattern Of Timeless Moments

At a time when we are experiencing, in author James Gleick's (Faster) words, "the acceleration of just about everything," it's remarkable if we slow down enough as we hurtle towards the next millennium, to note that HP celebrated 60 years of existence in 1999. The boom-boom times we've enjoyed for the past 17 years, contrast starkly to 1939, when nearly everyone on this planet was shaking off the worst economic bust of the 20th century - the Great Depression.

Who knew in January 1939 a casual coin toss between friends would decide the name of a company casting such a long historical shadow. At the end of 1939, ostensibly the very first Silicon Valley startup, posted a whopping $5,369 in revenue with $1,563 in profits.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Interestingly, in an attempt to see if history can repeat itself, that part of HP established by Hewlett and Packard, which has now been spun off as Agilent Technologies is acting like a start up. Only this time, there's plenty of new age marketing muscle behind them. For those who like interesting connections, 1939 was also the year Lew Platt was born. And, as if to prove that history is inherently cyclical, Mr. Platt, as most know by now, is retiring as CEO, president and chairman of HP in 1999. And in another twist of fate, Carleton S. Fiorina, who once worked as a secretary in HP's shipping department, became in 1999, the first outsider to be named HP's CEO and president. It's nothing less than a worthy 21st century challenge for Fiorina, who was named by Fortune Magazine, as the most powerful business woman in America two years running. "[HP has] deep engineering prowess. I bring strategic vision, which HP needs," she was quoted as saying in Fortune's October article.

But let's face it: Without the best people, the recycle bin is full of companies who have been erased from the hard drive of history. Despite the sanguine reports from the business and trade press and super star status achieved by some corporate founders and leaders, we know deep down that the greatest technology and the best leaders just canÕt cut it alone. And HP's history is full of people and personalities who have made lasting contributions: Joel Birnbaum, Dick Hackborn, Norm Neely, Charlie Litton, Fred Terman, Lew Platt and John Young. HP alumni have gone to become part of history at other companies: Robert Frankenberg at Novell; Ed McCracken at Silicon Graphics. And as a historical footnote, almost forgotten now, is the fact that Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak once worked at HP.

HP Ways And Means

I've discovered that HP is unique among hot shot Silicon Valley startups and Internet high fliers. Like other companies, they celebrate their successes, but usually not themselves. Joel Birnbaum, retired from leading HP's Labs, is HP's E-services visionary. Yet he is relatively unknown amongst the digerati. Dick Hackborn (returning to HP as chairman) was largely responsible for bootstrapping HP's printer business. And Lew Platt, though not as recognizable as Bill Gates or as quotable as Scott McNealy, has done more than his fair share to humanize and promote the HP Way.

Platt is credited with expanding the possibilities for women not only like Fiorina to excel at HP, but also Ann Livermore, now spearheading HP's thrust in HP's E-services, as well as Carolyn Ticknor, HP's printer and imaging leader. Both Livermore and Ticknor, by the way, also join Fiorina on Fortune's most powerful women list.

With the curtain coming down on the 20th century, our focus these days is on little else but the future - future profits, future growth, future technologies. So, it's important to note that HP has something that most Internet and dot.com companies can only hope to have 60 years from now: A proud past.