Will Carly Fiorina’s surge be undermined by her HP record?

In 2010, Carly Fiorina's Senate campaign was severely undermined by a series of attack ads that emphasized her failure as a Hewlett-Packard CEO. Could this happen again?

Damian Dovarganes
Carleton "Carly" Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard chairwoman and chief executive officer addresses members of the Town Hall Los Angeles Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2001 downtown Los Angeles. Fiorina has been fighting hard to persuade Wall Street and shareholders to support her $21 billion plan to acquire Compaq Computer. She essentially has staked her job on making the deal happen.

Carly Fiorina is doing well in polls. As Donald Trump saw his support drastically diminish following the second GOP debate, the businesswoman swiftly rose to No. 2 with 15 percent of Republican support.

But critics are skeptical that her success will persist. The reason? Her dismal tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, during which 30,000 employees were laid off.  

In 2010, Mrs. Fiorina ran for Senate in California, against Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. Leading up to the election, Fiorina was performing promisingly. Most polls showed she was within one or two points of Boxer, and some earlier ones even indicated she was ahead.

Then came the attack ads.

“Fiorina outsourced jobs to China. And while Californians lost their jobs, Fiorina tripled her salary, bought a million-dollar yacht, and five corporate jets,” the narrator in an ad released in mid-September of 2010 says of Fiorina’s legacy as CEO of the Fortune 500 tech company. Audio then cuts to a soundbite of Fiorina from a previous interview. “I’m proud of what I did at HP,” she says.

Fiorina lost the race by 10 points. Now as she surges in the 2016 presidential election, her corporate performance is once again the subject of scrutiny.

In an essay published on Medium Tuesday, her Deputy Campaign Manager Sarah Isgur Flores offered 10 points that defend Fiorina’s record as HP’s CEO. Among them were the claim that “Carly saved 80,000 jobs and HP grew to 150,000 jobs by 2005” and “Carly doubled revenues to more than $80 billion, tripled innovation, quadrupled cash flow and more than quadrupled the growth rate. HP went from a Fortune 28 to a Fortune 11 company.”

And yet, in 2009, Fiorina was named the 19th worst CEO of all time by Portfolio (now Upstart Business Journal).

“Mrs. Fiorina tries to obscure these harsh realities with a blizzard of her own ‘facts,’” writes New York Times columnist Steven Rattner in an op-ed. “On the campaign trail, for example, she speaks of having doubled her company’s revenues. However, most of that increase came from adding in Compaq’s sales, which is a misleading way to calculate revenue growth.”

In regards to her added jobs, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2010 that it was likely Fiorani created jobs overseas instead of adding jobs in the U.S.

But Fiorina isn’t without defenders in the industry.

"The stock took a beating, but she was absolutely correct," venture capitalist Tom Perkins told the LA Times in 2010. He had been a member of the HP board that fired her. "The merger was a brilliant move. Look where HP is now – the biggest computer company in the world."

Fiorina’s leadership at HP was the peak of her corporate career. Since she was fired, she has not run another publicly traded company. Despite that it’s the only substantial executive experience she can present to her voters, it certainly hasn’t been the highlight of her campaign speeches. In fact, she rarely brings it up. 

Perhaps, critics say, this is because the facts simply speak for themselves.

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