(1913 – 2001)
by John Minck
On this tenth anniversary of the passing of Bill Hewlett, we remember his remarkable influence on the lives of millions of people. Customers of his company, Hewlett-Packard, have benefited from superior technology in measurements and computation during the Golden Years of Technology in the last half of the 20th century. His HP employees enjoyed a company work culture that was second to none, respecting the dignity of every worker, exploiting the creativity of people with a “management by objective” which took hands off previous top-down styles which stifled personal initiative.
For long term employees, we might have accepted the common notion that it was Dave Packard who with his 6-foot-4 imposing presence, dominated the management of HP, and its outside image. But that was absolutely not true, the management duo of Dave and Bill was truly a collegial one, which leveraged their individual strengths and the respect they had for each other. They themselves noted that they almost knew what each other was thinking. Bill tended to be the technical resource, with special attention to new product strategies and future initiatives, with a special professional relationship to Research VP, Barney Oliver.
And yet, in the 1968-1971 period when Packard accepted DOD duty as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bill took over during a serious recession and grew the company at just about the same 15% per year that was common over past decades. No small amount of that growth came from his innovative bombshell product, and personal triumph, the HP-35 hand calculator.
In that same period, Bill innovated when revenues dropped significantly, to impose his well-known 9-day fortnight, putting every employee from janitor to vice president on furlough every other Friday. It reduced production output just the right amount without jeopardizing skilled workers by layoffs when the business rose up out of the doldrums. Imagine the new-found company loyalty that such worker consideration enlightened.
Looking back from our year of 2010, it's tempting to think a bit about how Hewlett might have led his company through the massive technology shifts we now experience in the 21st Century. From the over-riding influence of the Internet on global connections, to the inroads of communications technology with smart phones and video transmitted everywhere, from social media to cloud computing strategies, Bill would surely have led his company in a way that was different than our succeeding management took HP.
Bill died in January, 2001, but had not been active in company management since relinquishing his CEO job in 1978, his Executive Committee Chairmanship in 1983, finally becoming Director Emeritus in 1987. He probably would have approved of most of the remaining management period of John Young up to Young's handoff to Lew Platt in 1992. And he most likely would have supported Lew Platt's leadership up to 1999, when Platt retired. HP had become a large, diverse, globally-powerful organization with massive technologies in computers and printers and a variety of electrical and chemical and biological instrumentation.
In many ways, Platt was able to maintain a modestly good semblance of Hewlett's HP work culture, although as it moved into the global economy, much more production of the rapidly-growing consumer product line was transferred out of the US. This meant that the later reductions in workforce and layoffs were probably pre-ordained as growth continued. It goes without saying that under Hewlett's control, Agilent Technologies would NEVER have been spun off in 2000.
It is also highly UNLIKELY that any of the acquisitions from 2000 onward, (Carly), Compaq, EDS, et al, would have taken place. Both Dave and Bill preferred to grow from within, and clearly established that principle in spite of many small buyouts throughout their management period in the Golden Age of Technology. It is also interesting to speculate whether the final HP would have been substantially different if a Mark Hurd style technical personality would have come on board to follow Platt in 1999?
Yet in these last 10 years, Bill's inquisitive personality would have been irresistively fascinated with the development opportunities opened up by the Internet, the massive computational power spread around the globe, and the proven ability of HP to capitalize on technology innovations that help people and industry to live better lives. Imagine, nano-technology, insight into the human genome, handheld computation power a thousand times more powerful than his delightful HP-35 calculator, of which he was so rightly proud. I can just see him and Barney discussing how to exploit that special HP creative advantage which his advanced labs could always be counted on to develop.
So, in remembering Bill, we retired HP employees are eternally thankful that we worked for his company and experienced his regard for every worker. We remember his contributions to a dozen companies and organizations that recruited him for their Boards of Directors. We know that millions of his customers thank HP for products that are proud to sport the HP logo. We still see the Bill and Flora Hewlett Foundation name appear almost nightly on the Public Broadcasting System during the sponsor roll on the Lehrer Nightly News. And just today I saw the acknowledgment page listing in the SF Chronicle of the Hewlett Foundation as an annual contributor to the San Francisco Season of Sharing Fund. So his influence is still felt, far beyond the memories of his workers, his friends and his customers.