Star alumna is still wowing 'em at UM

Keynoter: In her return to College Park, Carleton S. Fiorina talks technology and leadership to an attentive audience of executives and graduate students.

October 11, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Twenty-five years ago, Carleton S. "Carly" Fiorina barely made it into the University of Maryland, College Park's graduate business school because she missed the application deadline.

Not one to accept a slight setback, it took Fiorina just an hour to persuade then-Dean Rudy Lamone to grant her a waiver. It didn't take Lamone long to know he had a rising star on his hands.

"She asked me, `How do you think a liberal arts student with a degree in philosophy and medieval studies from Stanford University will do against the analytical jocks you bring into the MBA program?'" Lamone said.

Apparently, the answer is: very well.

As the architect behind Hewlett-Packard Co.'s $19 billion purchase of Compaq Computer - the biggest merger in high-tech history - Fiorina wields the power of an $81 billion company that employs 141,000 people, owns 42 factories in 30 countries and serves 1 billion customers around the world.

Yesterday, the chief executive of the Palo Alto, Calif., tech giant returned to her alma mater as keynote speaker of the Robert H. Smith School of Business' CIO Forum.

She spoke to a rapt audience of information technology executives and graduate students about the future of technology and leadership.

The merger

Touching on everything from the migration of jobs overseas to HP's bitterly fought merger, Fiorina spoke of the need for companies to evolve and adapt quickly in the fast-changing world of technology.

"The merger between HP and Compaq was controversial to say the least," Fiorina said of the company's civil war with the son of cofounder William Hewlett, who sued to stop the deal. "But one of the qualities of leadership is to see things before everyone else sees them. When something is obvious, it may well be too late.

"We had the audacity to say high-tech mergers can be done," Fiorina said. "We did it not to break records. I wouldn't wish that fight on anybody, but I would do it again if I had to. We did it because tech was changing. ... If you're not leading, you're losing."

Recently named by Fortune magazine as the most powerful woman in business for the sixth year in a row, Fiorina pulled in a salary of $4 million last year. The 49-year-old executive said that when she got to HP, what she found was a slow-moving company "so in love with its past" that "it had forgotten to build its future."

For HP's potential to be unlocked, Fiorina said, leaders had to recognize that the days of seeing 30-, 50- or 100-percent growth are gone.

Management also had to conduct thousands of interviews with employees around the world to determine that HP and Compaq had common aspirations and values. Managers also had to chop more than $3 billion in costs, cut more than 17,000 jobs and build on main lines of business from building personal computer systems to printing and outsourcing services.

Using that strategy, Fiorina said, HP has reinvented itself as a innovative adapter ready to help other companies such as Walt Disney Co. simplify and better manage their businesses.

Businesses have to be prepared for the day, Fiorina said, when everything in life goes "digital, mobile and visual." HP is ready to lead the way, she said.

"Leadership is not about title," said Fiorina. "I don't think it is about stature. It is not about how many people work for you, how much you make or what your ranking is. Anyone can choose to lead at anytime, anywhere. ...

"It is all about unlocking the potential in others and helping others achieve more than they think is possible."

Almost anybody

Fiorina also spoke words of encouragement to those just starting out.

"For those of you who feel a bit uncertain, a bit unsure of yourself, I want to tell you I almost didn't get into the University of Maryland at all," Fiorina said. "I was in Italy teaching English and my application was late. ... It just goes to show you anybody can get into business school."

Anybody, that is, with a strong will to succeed, take risks, inspire and pursue a vision, according to Lamone.

"It was not a great surprise that Carly would quickly move up the ranks and get attention for the work she did," Lamone said.

"She had the ability to paint pictures and articulate a vision of what might be. She was clearly very bright. She always did more than expected.

"The story isn't over," Lamone said. "Just keep your eye on Carly Fiorina."

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