SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Meg Whitman may be best known as the billionaire Republican who spent nearly $175 million on a failed effort to become California governor, offering little insight into her motivation in the process.
To the business world, she’s the former CEO star of eBay, the online auction site she took to its height during the dot-com boom but left amid slowing growth and her unsuccessful gamble to buy the Skype Internet phone service for $2.6 billion.
After November’s loss to Democrat Jerry Brown in the governor’s race, Whitman has been re-engaging with her business colleagues and trying to repair her public image by joining several high-profile boards and donating money to education reform. She joined the board of directors of Hewlett-Packard Co. in January as part of the most recent shake-up at the troubled technology company.
On Thursday, she was named its new chief executive as the board ousted Leo Apotheker after just 11 months on the job — the third CEO bounced from HP in the last six years. The company’s market value has fallen by $60 billion and has been adjusting its earnings downward.
Whitman, 55, provided what she called the “adult supervision” as the fledgling auction site eBay grew from a website with 30 employees to a corporation with 15,000 people and nearly $6 billion in revenue.
She has only one other stint as chief executive on her resume, at the flower delivery company FTD in the mid-1990s, where her turnaround attempt failed. Whitman says she fell short and conceded defeat amid unrealistic expectations.
When she arrived at the flower company’s Detroit headquarters in 1995, Whitman said she found frustrated employees and a lackluster business plan. Her detached managing style did little to boost morale, former employees said, and ultimately, she left after serving less than two years of her five-year contract.
She told investors the company couldn’t be fixed, “at least not by me,” according to her 2010 biography “The Power of Many.”
Whitman had been brought in by former colleagues at the investment firm Bain Capital, where she began her business career under the tutelage of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, now one of the top Republican presidential hopefuls. She was asked to help FTD transition from a member-owned nonprofit cooperative association to a profitable corporation.
Whitman was not immediately available for interviews Thursday, HP spokesman Michael Thacker said.
Her political consultant, Jeff Randle, said Whitman is uniquely qualified to take over at HP because she has a deep understanding of the way Silicon Valley works and believes the company is critical to the state.
“The goal is to turn this around and make HP work, make it a successful company,” he said. “Based on Meg Whitman’s resume and her service on the board, she was a logical choice.”
Politics was an odd fit for Whitman, who ascended through corporate America after earning an economics degree from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. She started at Bain & Co. and worked her way up to blue-chip companies that included Disney and Stride-Rite shoes.
She resigned from the board of Goldman Sachs in 2002 amid a scandal over the now-illegal practice of “spinning,” in which she and other well-heeled clients got first dibs at initial public stock offerings, then sold them quickly for large profits, which for Whitman amounted to $1.8 million.
Her discomfort in the political spotlight stood out during last year’s gubernatorial campaign as the mother of two adult sons traversed the state. She was criticized for revealing little of herself and has since acknowledged it was a tactical mistake borne of her misunderstanding of the differences between business and political leadership styles.
Whitman’s fate as a candidate was sealed when, after spending millions of dollars on the most intensive Republican Hispanic outreach program in California history, her former housekeeper emerged in the final weeks of the race to say Whitman fired her after nine years when she revealed she was an illegal immigrant.
It later came to light that the maid had help from union groups who supported Brown for governor.
As an adviser to 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, Whitman said she would support legalization for immigrants who pay a fine and learn English, but she was forced to take a much harder line during her Republican gubernatorial primary.
Before joining her former boss turned political mentor, Romney, during the 2008 Republican presidential primary, Whitman had shown little interest in politics and had rarely even voted. The educational foundation named for Whitman and her husband, Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Griffith Harsh IV, was mostly inactive. She had had little community involvement.
Despite spending $144 million of her own fortune in her bid for governor, Forbes still pegs Whitman’s wealth at $1.3 billion.
Even while ascending to the top post at HP, Whitman’s aspirations for a cabinet or White House post should Romney be elected have not dimmed. She has worked as a fundraiser for him this year and “would have to consider an offer from President Romney,” said Randle, her political consultant.
But he added that would not have to be at the beginning of his term.
After months of public criticism during the race, Whitman has sought to rehabilitate her image in the last few months.
After signing on with the HP board, she became a strategic partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and joined the boards of Procter & Gamble, one of her former employers, and ZipCar, the rental firm that went public in April.
The Long Island native also has begun moving into a more public role as a philanthropist.
She appeared last week with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a prominent Democrat, to donate $500,000 for math education in the nation’s second largest public school system.
This week, the Whitman-Harsh Family Foundation added a $2.5 million gift to Summit Public Schools for 10 new charter schools. Whitman, who is on the board of Summit, said the foundation would give up to $2.5 million more in matching funds from Silicon Valley donations.
Associated Press writer Jordan Robertson in San Francisco contributed to this story.