Now we're on our own

Bill Hewlett died in his sleep yesterday, at 87. He lived a good life.

I've worked at the company that he and his friend Dave Packard started, for almost 18 years now, and I'm proud to be a part of their legacy. It's a different world than when they started, during the depression. They looked for a way to apply their knowledge of electronics to something that people would buy: "We had a bowling lane foul line indicator. We had a thing that would make a urinal flush automatically as soon as a guy came in front of it. We had a shock machine to make people lose weight," he noted in 1987.

I never had the privelege of knowing either Bill or Dave personally, or seeing them in anything other than a crowd situation. With tens of thousands of employees, I'm not the only one. The other day, I was in labstock, and overheard a conversation about an old b&w photo that the coordinator had posted. "I'm not sure which one is Bill and which one is Dave..." I can at least be certain of which is which in a photo of the two of them. :-)

And it's not an exaggeration to say that they've had a profound effect on most of my adult life. What they built into their company, the "HP way," was built to last. So much of it is taken for granted in the companies that have emulated HP, whether they were started by alumni, or would-be competitors.

Others have done and will do a better job than I at enumerating the specific innovations, but here's what I think is the most important one: conduct business with uncompromising integrity, with respect for the people you work with, the people who work for you, your customers, suppliers and competitors. From this simple principle came the "standards" of flexible working hours and time off, profit sharing, an open-door policy (which is mostly figurative, since few of us have offices with doors), promoting from within, management by walking around, pay as you go, hiring for the long-term, and many more.

Not all of these things are entirely intact at this point. What started as a garage shop and became an extended family is now a giant corporation. Actually, it's two giant corporations, with the split last year of the Test & Measurement and Medical Products organizations to Agilent Technologies. Profit sharing has been reworked a couple times, and while we still have a "(company) performance bonus," it's not as simple as divvying up a portion of our profit. I used to be able to state with confidence that HP has never had a layoff, but after more companies being bought and merged and spun off than I can count, I don't think that's strictly true.

Like every other major corporation these days, we're pushed to a short-term focus, concerned about what investors think about our quarterly results, and what it will do to our stock price. Our reluctance to "let people go" and the need to keep costs competitive has led to a significant portion of of our work force in temporary and contract employees. For as great as our products can be, not every one is perfect, and you don't have to work to hard too find someone who's been disgruntled by a failure, or an unhappy experience with our customer service. We don't always live up to the highest of our ideals, let alone the highest standard of performance.

But it's the principle of uncompromising integrity that I see as the bedrock of what Bill and Dave built. Competition is tough these days, and integrity may not guarantee success. But success without integrity is a hollow victory. When you're dead and gone, you should leave something more than just ashes.

Our current CEO and chairman of the board, Carly Fiorina has given us the slogan of aspiring to be "a winning e-company with a shining soul." Like any slogan, it runs a narrow gauntlet between cliché and cynicism, but Bill Hewlett's life shows us what it means to have a shining soul. It's a worthy aspiration.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Saturday, 13-Jan-2001 11:36:42 MST