What new HP CEO Leo Apotheker has to do now

Leo Apotheker never seemed exciting enough to make a comeback so in-your-face. Or, really, SAP and Oracle's faces.   

HP’s announcement that the former SAP co-leader will take over the reigns not only begins in exciting next chapter in the ongoing drama surrounding the ouster of Mark Hurd; it serves as a coda to one of the weirdest, most drawn-out succession sagas in IT history.

For a substantial period of time, SAP was ruled by what I liked to call the Holy Trinity. There was Hasso Plattner, guru, visionary and clearly the Father. Shai Agassi, the sexy young buck with the innovative ideas, was the Son, and Henning Kagermann, the professorial president, seemed even at his peak to be more of the Holy Ghost. Even more spectral, however, was Apotheker, who quietly toiled in the wings for 20 years before he was finally – after what seemed like a series of behind-the-scenes jousting for supremacy that led to Agassi’s exit, among others – given the chance to lead alongside Kagermann until the latter’s departure. Only two years later, Apotheker was gone, without explanation and without doing much of anything to raise his profile among SAP’s vast customer base.

While SAP and HP are occasionally rivals in the applications space, they are really two very different companies. SAP is the original giant in business software, selling high-end enterprise resource planning products that took years to implement and frustrated scores of IT departments but nevertheless became essential for corporations to function. HP is a printer manufacturer that has struggled to dominate in desktops, smartphones and software, despite an aggressive acquisition approach dwarfed only by Oracle and IBM. SAP has spent the less several years trying to convince companies large and small it’s not that hard to use, and to keep adding new features to their existing purchases. HP, meanwhile, has been trying to grow up higher into the application stack, including places, like data warehousing and business intelligence, where SAP has a much stronger foothold.

Apotheker worked at SAP long enough to know the company extremely well. Maybe so well that to move to another large vendor with a clean slate of sorts will be entirely refreshing. There must still be a lot of politics within HP, but Apothecker has the experience to successfully navigate them, particularly if they aren’t part of his personal history. A more significant difference at HP is its growing emphasis around services, following its acquisition of EDS last year. SAP is not a major services company, but Apotheker’s long stint as head of SAP’s customer operations unit will serve him well there.

Mark Hurd’s tenure at HP was marked by wave after wave of cost-cutting. This was possibly a necessary part of fitting together the pieces of several acquisitions, but focusing so closely on operational efficiencies is not always associated with major growth. Apothecker’s job will be to make HP perform as though Compaq, EDS and more recently 3Par were all organically grown, and execute on the market opportunities that those various deals represented. For too long HP has been full of unrealized potential born from the bold purchases of Apothecker’s predecessors.

Most significantly, HP has never been in as vulnerable a position against Oracle as it is today. With Sun Microsystems hardware as part of his arsenal and HP’s last CEO on his payroll, Larry Ellison will have little need for partnership. Apotheker, however, has spent more time than anyone at the one company Oracle has never fully been able to defeat. His appointment to the head of HP is a throw-down, but it’s also the competitive opportunity of Leo Apotheker’s life. SAP should have beaten back the Oracle threat years ago. Now, at HP, he can finally prove whether he’s up for the task.

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