Meg Whitman as the HP CEO? She'd have a tough job.

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman reportedly is the choice of the troubled company's board to replace the current HP CEO, Leo Apotheker. Despite her past achievements, some question whether she is up for the daunting task.

By , Staff writer

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    Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman speaks during her appearance at the Women's Conference 2010 in Long Beach, California. Whiman may soon replace Hewlett-Packard's current CEO Leo Apotheker.
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The struggling technology giant Hewlett-Packard may soon have a new chief executive officer – and it looks like the switch can't come too soon.

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman has emerged in news reports as the possible choice by HP's board to replace current CEO Leo Apotheker, perhaps as soon as Thursday evening. With Hewlett-Packard stock down 50 percent since February – and down even in Thursday morning trading after her name was floated – Ms. Whitman would enter the job with a formidable task ahead.

Turning around America's largest high-tech company (measured by annual revenues of some $128 billion) is a very different task from expanding a young startup in the arena of online auctions.

That's not to say Whitman is the wrong choice to lead HP. She has an impressive pedigree of past achievements, from managing various consumer brands (at Procter & Gamble and Hasbro) to growing eBay into a company with a market value of $40 billion.

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Many industry analysts and investors greeted her name with optimism, and HP's stock decline on Thursday came as US stocks generally were taking a dive on concerns about the economy.

At the same time, not everyone sees Whitman as a promising choice. HP's roots are on the hardware side of the tech business – a world away from Whitman's experiences at places like eBay (1998 to 2008) and toymaker Hasbro before that. She could apply her marketing and management experience to HP's business lines, but many strategic decisions would stretch her into new territory.

And HP can hardly afford a lot of trial and error in the corner office.

This is a moment of high customer and investor uncertainty about where HP is headed. Mr. Apotheker has seen the stock price tank despite efforts to chart a new course under which HP would exit the businesses of making devices like computers and laptops for the mass market.

Apotheker, former CEO of German business software maker SAP AG, has only been in the job since last year. He was a surprise choice to replace the popular Mark Hurd, who was ousted last year after a scandal involving expense reports and a female contractor.

Before Mr. Hurd, HP was led by Carly Fiorina, whom investors blamed for moving heavily into personal computers by buying Compaq. She was eventually fired by the board.

The high turnover in the CEO slot, over the past decade, has also increased investor worries about the competence of HP's board. It didn't help when Patricia Dunn, while chairing the board, had to resign a few years ago after authorizing electronic eavesdropping on directors and journalists in an effort to stop leaks to the news media.

Whitman would bring name recognition. Her most recent publicity has come in politics, where she ran a close campaign as a Republican for California governor, losing to Jerry Brown in 2010. A billionaire, she spent about $30 million of her own money on the campaign.

HP is one of the most storied names in Silicon Valley's history. But it's also facing something of an identity crisis. A basic choice is whether the company can best succeed best as a full-service technology conglomerate, or as a more streamlined operation that does some big things well.

The firm gets big revenues from providing data-storage and server devices to corporations, but also shows huge revenues from personal computers (at a low profit margin), printers, and scanners.

Apotheker, in a note to shareholders in the firm's latest annual report, said, "We expect HP to continue moving up the technology stack into higher margin categories."

His exit would come as HP is predicting tough times ahead. In August the company lowered its outlook, saying it expects adjusted earnings of as much as $4.86 per share and revenue of as much as $127.6 billion, both of which were below analyst projections. The proposed spinoff of the PC division could make matters worse as customers refrain from ordering until a buyer is found.

• Wire service material was used in this report.

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