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February 6, 2018

Tech Hall of Fame: Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman's bold enterprise management moves leave many of her generation in the shade.

By Sabrina Dougall

As CEO of eBay for a decade and chief of Hewlett-Packard for a further four years, Margaret (better known as Meg) Whitman is the only woman to have run more than one Fortune 500 company. Famed for her historic decision to divide HP into enterprise and hardware divisions, Whitman’s bold enterprise moves leave many of her generation in the shade. With a net worth of $3.4bn (Forbes), the ace of ecommerce often features in the top ten rankings of most influential businesswomen in the world.

Starting strong

Growing up in Huntingdon, New York, Whitman gained a BA in Economics from Princeton University before moving onto Harvard Business School. Whitman was awarded her Master of Business Administration (MBA) in 1979, rounding off six years of higher education at the most prestigious US universities.

An intractable passion for business propelled Whitman into leading strategic planning at The Walt Disney Company throughout the 1980s. Having established herself as a budding businesswoman, Whitman’s ambition flared and she took up executive roles at DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble and Hasbro in the following decade.

Retail turns digital: The eBay years

With two decades of entrepreneurial experience under her belt, Whitman joined eBay in 1998 when it employed just 30 staff. Proving her entrepreneurial worth from the get-go, Whitman transformed eBay from an obscure tech outfit making $5.7m annually from sales in 1998 to a $8bn-a-year ecommerce giant by the end of her tenure in 2008.

One critical wobble under her management was the $4.1bn acquisition of Skype in 2005, which eBay sold at a $1.4bn loss in 2009, only for Microsoft to take on the VoIP firm in 2011 to the tune of $8.5bn.


A new age for HP

Whitman joined the board of HP at the beginning of 2011, making her impact on company culture felt within days of taking on the CEO position by taking up a workstation in a cubicle among less senior staff to encourage more fluid communication with the C-level. Recalling the transition, the businesswoman told Fortune in September 2017: “The company was pretty shell-shocked, honestly.”

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As well as steering company culture, HP’s new CEO had to navigate the choppy waters of legacy finances including the doomed $10bn acquisition of Autonomy. Whitman boasted of a 220% shareholder return between October 2012 and her departure on November 21 2017. While creditworthy, Whitman’s total return from the very beginning of her premiership is 120%, according to FT analysis.



A seismic split

Most of all, Whitman is remembered for her leadership of the corporate world’s greatest division by revenue: the 2015 split of ca. $50bn HP into separate hardware and enterprise IT companies. In May 2016, the fearless magnate further sectioned off HPE’s enterprise services arm and merged it with Computer Sciences Corp. During the same week, HPE reported its first increase in revenue for five years.

In the run-up to Whitman’s departure, HPE reported better-than-expected earnings Q3 2016 (+10.1%), Q3 (+16.3%) and Q4 2017 (+9.5%) according to CNBC analysts. However, the company’s share price in 2017 remained around half that of Q4 2016 peak.


Testing the waters of politics

Tipped by Fortune magazine in autumn 2017 to become the first female US president, Whitman one cannot help but wonder if Whitman will dive into politics again after her 2010 failure to secure the GOP nomination for California governor. A lifelong Republican supporter, the keen swimmer switched allegiances to voice support for Hilary Clinton in 2016. In November 2017 at least, when asked if a role in politics may suit, Whitman told Forbes “I’m definitely not doing that.”


A view to the future

A legend of the dot com revolution, Whitman’s commercial successes have left an indelible mark on corporate tech since the turn of the millennium.

At #7 on the Fortune 2017 Most Powerful Women rankings – one place ahead of Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz and one behind Ginni Rometty, President and CEO of long-term competitor IBM – Whitman is a self-made billionaire with the business foresight possessed by few children of the 1960s.

At 61, Whitman is not looking to step out of enterprise any time soon, having agreed at the start of 2018 to partner with former Disney colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg to become CEO of his video-for-mobile startup NewTV.

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