Compaq's Ride From Casualty To Conqueror of the PC Market
Compaq Computer Corporation is an example of how a cost-cutting strategy went beyond chopping jobs, to 'reinventing' the company. Meanwhile, General Motors' Lordstown, Ohio, plant illustrates the problems that can occur when downsizing is abruptly imposed from the top down.
FOR two years, Frances White wanted to join booming Compaq Computer Corporation in Houston. One attraction was co-founder and then-president Rod Canion. Compaq employees ''worshipped'' him, she says, because he promised eternal job security.Skip to next paragraph
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Mrs. White got her wish in 1988 when the company hired her to work on advertising campaigns for Compaq's laptop and notebook computer models.
But three years later, Compaq revenue dropped when it failed to adjust to shifting consumer tastes. As a result, the company laid off 1,700 employees, including White. Mr. Canion was fired the next day.
Had it only downsized as a cost-cutting move, executives say, Compaq would have achieved nothing. Instead, the layoffs freed up resources the computermaker was then able to apply to a new strategy, which turned its corporate philosophy inside out and produced spectacular results.
Compaq has transformed itself from near-casualty condition to undisputed conqueror of the personal-computer market. It vaulted from being the third-largest seller of personal computers in 1993 to the world leader in 1994. And the company did it in only half the time it allotted to reach that once far-fetched goal.
''It's been incredibly successful,'' says Robert Corpuz in San Francisco, who tracks the personal-computer industry for Dataquest Inc., a high-tech market-research firm.
One result: Worldwide employment has rebounded from 11,420 before the layoffs to more than 14,000 today. Yet, revenue per employee, which was declining before Compaq restructured, has experienced ''record-breaking growth,'' Mr. Corpuz notes.
Phenomenal growth was the hallmark of Compaq's early years. Founded in 1982, the company amassed a decade of ''fastest ever'' business accolades by focusing on product quality. Build the best, the company believed, and the customer would buy it.
Compaq wasted no money on luxury and perks for its employees. Then as now, for instance, executives fly coach class. But when it came to product quality, it spared no expense: Glossy brochures, expensive packaging, and computers with right-angle corners that can only be made with specialized, multi-million-dollar tools.
Compaq even had a whole department of engineers working to perfect the internal power supplies, although it could have purchased them from third-party vendors for a lot less.
Missing the market
Customers flocked to Compaq until 1991, when sales declined suddenly. Top management went into denial, blaming the United States recession. ''That was untrue,'' admits Gian Carlo Bisone, vice president of North America marketing. ''Companies like Dell were growing like crazy.''
But Compaq, long intent on winning the business market, was missing the exploding consumer market. Consumers had begun to accept low-cost clones, such as those made by Dell Computer Corporation in Austin, Texas, as reliable and, therefore, a better value.
''Compaq was the Mercedes-Benz,'' Mr. Bisone says. ''Sure it can run 300,000 miles, but how many people can afford it?''
Why hadn't Compaq foreseen this development? ''We only saw our own success,'' Chief Financial Officer Daryl White says. Mr. Bisone adds: ''Growth is the worst deodorant. It hides a lot of things.''
True, the company was not losing money -- yet. But top management was scared. It wanted to act before sales slipped further. In mid-1991, Mr. White calculated the necessary employment cuts and presented the figures to Canion.