fiorina tightrope
CNN  — 

UPDATE May 4: Carly Fiorina officially announced her candidacy for President on Monday morning, using an interview with ABC News and her social media accounts. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO cited her knowledge of the economy as part of her reason for running, but critics were already reminding voters of the troubles she had with the company just hours after her campaign became official.

Carly Fiorina believes Hewlett-Packard is her ticket to the White House.

The former HP chief executive and potential 2016 Republican contender is billing herself as a Silicon Valley trailblazer and tech whiz with more tangible accomplishments than Hillary Clinton. In an interview with CNN, Fiorina, 60, took credit for transforming HP and said she would bring the same skills to the White House.

“HP requires executive decision-making and the presidency is all about executive decision-making,” Fiorina said.

But for many of her former HP colleagues, President Carly Fiorina is a disturbing idea.

READ: With eye on a presidential bid, Carly Fiorina hires Republican Party spokeswoman

Interviews with close to a dozen current and former HP employees reveal that nearly 10 years after being forced out of the firm, Fiorina remains a deeply polarizing figure. Her tenure, which coincided with the bursting of the dot-com bubble, was fraught with layoffs, leadership transitions and a controversial merger with Compaq that pitted Fiorina against members of the Hewlett and Packard families in an ugly public feud.

Now, Fiorina’s public flirtation with a presidential campaign is reopening those old wounds and inviting new scrutiny of her management skills, which she is selling as one of her top assets.

Jason Burnett, the grandson of the late HP co-founder David Packard and a member of the board of trustees at the Packard Foundation, once HP’s largest shareholder, said in an interview that Fiorina shouldn’t work at any level of government.


“She did damage to a great company and I don’t want to see her do damage to a great country,” said Burnett, who was elected mayor of Carmel, California, in a nonpartisan election in 2012.

His grandfather and the other co-founder, Bill Hewlett, “put employees first and in turn, employees saw that and saw the company first, and it was successful all around,” Burnett added. “Losing that – losing what people referred to as the ‘HP way’ – was the hardest thing for me to see.”

“The battle for the heart and soul of HP was very long and bitter and personally impactful,” said Steve Huhn, a former vice president of global sales at HP.

Following the latest Fiorina news has become a bit of a hobby for some HP alums.

About a half dozen ex-employees who previously worked in the Palo Alto, California, headquarters have been exchanging some lively emails in recent weeks to discuss Fiorina’s presidential prospects. The contents of the emails were shared with CNN by multiple participants on the condition that they not be named.

“I said when Carly was mentioned as a possible running mate with John McCain, he’s a war hero and former POW. I think he’s suffered enough already,” one person wrote.

“She loves the big stage and has no fear of saying whatever it takes to win the moment,” another email said.

All the talk comes after Fiorina said earlier this month that the likelihood she’ll run for president is “way over 50%.” So far she’s only a blip in early polls – only 1% of New Hampshire GOP primary voters said she was their first choice in a poll this month. But she’s busy laying down the groundwork for a possible campaign by touring early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. She will also speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this week.

Fiorina’s time at HP has been a political target in the past. When she challenged Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010, the veteran California Democrat zeroed in on Fiorina’s HP tenure.

“As the CEO of HP, Carly Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers. Fiorina shipped jobs to China,” one Boxer ad claimed. “And while Californians lost their jobs, Fiorina tripled her salary, bought a $1 million yacht and five corporate jets.”

Boxer outraised Fiorina among HP employees in that cycle, receiving $15,000 to Fiorina’s $7,000.

‘Very proud’

When asked in the interview whether she had any regrets about her time at HP, Fiorina said she is “very proud” of her record at the company. By her account, she doubled the firm’s revenue, quadrupled growth and executed the merger with Compaq that Fiorina believes has been vindicated over time.

“When you are doing tough but necessary things in tough times, not everyone is going to like that,” she said.

Her critics see it differently. They say under Fiorina’s watch, tens of thousands of employees were laid off, jobs were shipped abroad and the company’s stock value plummeted some 50%. And if the Compaq merger that Fiorina so fiercely fought for was widely viewed as successful years later, her execution of the deal has received mixed reviews.

Fiorina “simply did not have the skills to manage one of the world’s largest technology companies,” former Compaq chairman Ben Rosen wrote in 2008.

But for many, what left perhaps the deepest impression was not how well Fiorina handled the Compaq merger or how the company performed during her tenure, but rather her interactions with colleagues.

Struggling to connect

A handful of ex-employees said in interviews that Fiorina struggled to connect with rank-and-file staff.

Her two immediate predecessors, Lewis Platt and John Young, had no doors to their offices. Under Fiorina, the CEO’s office was closed off to most employees who didn’t make appointments.

As CEO, Platt would regularly sit with employees in the third-floor cafeteria, asking about their families or talking over the latest 49ers game. Fiorina didn’t mingle, according to her former colleagues.

“One of the hallmarks of the HP culture was MBWA – management by wandering around,” said Brad Whitworth, who worked at HP from 1980 to 2003 in various roles including leading corporate communications. “I don’t think Carly considered that a good use of her time, even though she was great at it. She was so very good at mass media that she’d much rather fire up the network and do a broadcast to thousands than sit down with employees in their workspaces.”

She also struck many as a self-promoter. After she became CEO, Fiorina’s portrait appeared next to those of Hewlett and Packard in the lobby of the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. Veteran HP staff members noted that Platt’s and Young’s images weren’t exhibited in that way.

Today, there is no portrait of current HP CEO Meg Whitman on display.

As a part of her new marketing campaign called “HP invent,” Fiorina commissioned a replica of the famous garage where Hewlett and Packard originally started their company in the late 1930s to be built on company grounds. It was used as a backdrop for promotional materials, some of which featured Fiorina.

“She wanted to reinvent her company pretty much in her own image and she was directly involved in creating the new HP image, which featured her as a physical prop,” said Roy Verley, who worked at HP from 1979 to 2000 in various roles including in corporate communications. “Carly arrived with this imperial air and East Coast flair and a lot of people sensed, and I’m one of them, right away, that this might not be a good cultural match.”

Plenty of HP alums are hesitant to revisit this tumultuous period. Five senior HP executives who worked with Fiorina – including multiple former division VPs – declined to be interviewed about her tenure.

Fiorina’s supporters

But ask Fiorina’s supporters, and they insist HP badly needed a fresh boost of energy as it struggled to stay relevant during the boom of the information technology sector. Fiorina’s critics, they say, fail to appreciate her bold vision for transforming HP into a 21st century company.

“Contrary to what has been written in terms of a lot of negative things, she did what she was hired to do and that was to lead a transformation,” said Bob Knowling, who was on HP’s board of directors during Fiorina’s tenure. “Transformation is not easy work. It’s hard work, and I think she did a stellar job.”

Others say her critics are clinging to the past in a way that diminishes her real accomplishments.

“CEOs aren’t there to have coffee in the cafeteria with employees and to yuk it up,” said Bill Mutell, a former senior executive at HP. “It’s easy for the gallery to criticize when in fact I’d be curious to see how they would have done things differently.”