When Carly Fiorina launches her campaign for president this week, her message to the world will be emphatic: what she did for HP, she can do for America.
From spaghetti dinners in New Hampshire to startup conferences in New York, the former head of Hewlett-Packard is expected to keep staking her claim as a pioneering executive prodigy: “it is only in the United States of America that a young woman can start as a secretary and become CEO of the largest technology company in the world,” she recently posted on Facebook , next to a low rating from a pro-choice group that she called “a badge of honor” .
Fiorina, 60, has never held public office. A 2010 run for US senate collapsed amid images of private jets and million-dollar yachts. Now, she hopes the revived record of a dot-com businesswoman will vault her over the otherwise all-male Republican field of mostly professional politicians – or at least as one of their vice-presidential running mates to face Hillary Clinton head-on.
“We went from a market laggard to market leader,” Fiorina has said of her six years running the computer giant. “Unlike Hillary, I have actually accomplished something.”
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But those who watched what Fiorina did to HP – mishandling the $25bn acquisition of Compaq, getting ousted by the board in 2005 with a $21m golden parachute, repeatedly being named one of the worst CEOs in American corporate history – say those supposed accomplishments are already coming back to “haunt” her run for the White House.
“She put herself ahead of the interests of the company and I fear she would do the same as president,” Jason Burnett, a grandson of the late HP co-founder David Packard and a member of the Packard Foundation board of trustees, told the Guardian. “I don’t want her to do harm to this country.”
HP’s longtime director of corporate communications, Roy Verley, said his ex-boss alienated colleagues with a “cult of Carly” that put self-promotion first.
“She didn’t know what she was doing and couldn’t deliver on her promises,” said Verley, who left HP in 2000.
The notion of a successful Fiorina reign at HP, he said, was “fantasy”.
Burnett, echoing criticisms from more Hewletts and Packards alike, warned the emergent class of political bankrollers in Silicon Valley – already courted by Fiorina’s competitors like Rand Paul and Jeb Bush – to review “refresh their memory” before signing campaign checks.
A spokesman for Fiorina, who is set to launch her campaign on Monday online, did not respond to a request for comment. But political scientists and technology bankrollers agreed that even a woman-focused, folksy-outsider-meets-business-insider campaign would struggle to shrug off cobwebby boardroom battles predating the Facebook era and re-emerge as much more than a long-shot.
“She takes the Silicon Valley motto that it’s ‘OK to fail’ a tad too literally,” wrote the usually sober editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News, in calling for more women in politics – except Carly Fiorina.
Texas to riches – and taking on Clinton
Little of Fiorina’s boom-and-bust time at HP appears to have registered in the Republican heartland, where she has been working on an invisible campaign for months, touting her ostensibly humble origins and an only-in-America backstory.
The Texas-born daughter of an artist and a federal judge, she studied philosophy and medieval history at Stanford and worked as a secretary and receptionist before joining AT&T as a trainee manager.
Fiorina zoomed up the ranks, and in 1999, HP poached her to become the first woman to lead a Fortune 50 company. The pay, perks and egalitarian ethos elicited fierce employee loyalty, but the Silicon Valley behemoth needed a bold new leader.
That is often where Fiorina’s Horatio Alger-style narrative ends on the campaign trail, and where the pro-life, pro-guns, pro-God social conservatism begins.
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While insisting that Clinton “can’t play the gender card” against her, Fiorina has further burnished her conservative appeal by challenging the Democratic frontrunner’s credentials.
“She has not accomplished much,” Fiorina said of the former secretary of state at a campaign stop last month in Iowa . “I have sat across the table from Vladimir Putin.”
“Obviously I’ve never negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran,” she said at a recent breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “But I’ve negotiated a lot of deals.”
The dual appeal – “I’m not a political neophyte, but I’m also not a professional politician” – appears to have won over voters in early battleground states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But an Associated Press poll released over the weekend suggests she may have many deals yet to make: just 7% of those surveyed had a favourable view of Fiorina, and a full three-quarters said they did not know enough about her.
“People out there are not troubled by the fact I have not held elected office,” Fiorina told a conservative audience in Washington on Saturday .
A ‘disaster’ at HP looming on the campaign trail
Even if Fiorina’s presidential run ends as a way to the vice-presidency, campaign-watchers say her six years at HP will shape voter perceptions: “And not to her advantage,” said Melinda Jackson, a politics professor at San Jose state university. “It was a rocky tenure. I think it will haunt her.”
Critics recall that HP’s board accused her of “destroying” the company’s value by mishandling the Compaq takeover, a move that committed HP to making low-margin personal computers rather than focusing on higher-margin products such as printers.
The company was sued by its shareholders, who argued she didn’t deserve such a massive severance package. Ben Rosen, the former chairman of Compaq, said Fiorina “simply did not have the skills to manage one of the world’s largest technology companies”.
Under Fiorina, HP revenue more than doubled – from $42bn in sales to $87bn – but net earnings fell to $2.4bn from $3.1bn.
The Unlocking Potential Project, Fiorina’s new initiative to help close the gender gap and recruit more independent women backers, describes her achievements at HP as including “market leadership in every market and product category and quadruple cash-flow”. But HP stock tumbled 50% during her tenure – and leaped 6.9% the day after her departure.
Burnett, the Packard grandson, said those financial realities create a dilemma for an ardent advocate of a free market advocate: “What can she say? The market was mistaken?”
Five years after the ouster, when Fiorina began her first bid for public office and challenged Barbara Boxer for her California senate seat, his sister Arianna wrote a letter. Fiorina, the heiress warned three Republican senators who had endorsed the former CEO, was spinning her record at HP – and accused her of using the golden parachute for “financing her campaign”.
“[A]llow me to disillusion you of a few of your stated reasons for supporting her,” Packard wrote . “Most business commentators consider Fiorina’s tenure at HP to be a disaster.”
Boxer defeated Fiorina resoundingly, thanks in large part to devastating attack ads.
One intoned: “As CEO of HP, Carly Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers. Fiorina shipped jobs to China. And while Californians lost their jobs, Fiorina tripled her salary, bought a million-dollar yacht and five corporate jets … Carly Fiorina. Outsourcing jobs. Out for herself.”
Republican rivals for the 2016 nominating fight may borrow that playbook from 2010, said Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow who advises California’s top Republicans.
“I can see a Super Pac doing the same to her in the primary,” Whalen said. “Hers is not an easy story to tell.”
Escaping ‘haters’ and courting startup dollars
After spending last week in New Hampshire , Fiorina will roll out her candidacy via social media on Monday, followed by media interviews, a campaign booklet called “My Leadership Journey” and an address to the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York, where she will seek to regain confidence from a startup world she left behind on the wrong side of a bubble.
But her bid for the White House is already being cast by many politicos as a bid for redemption , to banish the ignominy from her HP departure. Activists and donors are watching closely to see if she can still lure campaign financing out of a “Carly for America” fundraising operation already drawing scrutiny from federal officials .
“I was in junior high, I don’t know what happened at HP,” said Aaron Ginn, the co-founder of San Francisco-based Lincoln Labs, a lobbying group that enlists an increasingly influential – and rich – group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs wading into the world of donations with politics that are a blend of socially open-minded libertarianism and new-school Republicanism.
Speaking in a personal capacity, and without endorsing any candidate, Ginn said he liked Fiorina’s conviction and philosophical underpinnings. He shrugged off the attacks on her as standard electoral fare: “You can find a hater anywhere,” he said.
Related: Carly Fiorina will lose the Republican nomination to prove there’s no war on women
But as the Clintons discovered with Whitewater and now everything from email servers to charitable donations, US presidential campaigns can shine harsh, sustained spotlights on old events. Just ask John Kerry about that swift boat and the Vietnam war.
To Fiorina’s admirers, they see presidential attributes in the tenacity and confidence of an executive willing to confront the future – if not quite all of her past.
Her “incredibly smart, passionate, articulate” qualities shined some years ago, said Carl Guardino, a former HP executive who is now CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, when she accepted his invitation to address an audience of mostly underprivileged Latina girls.
“She was mesmerising,” Guardino said.
Verley, the former communications director at HP, said Fiorina’s self-confidence may have led to boardroom fiasco and that historical “fantasy” may yet help Fiorina make an impact on the most crowded Republican field in years – and be a thorn in Clinton’s side.
“She’s a born politician,” he said. “She’s extremely confident of her ability to step into any situation and command it.”
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