When Carly Fiorina started at Hewlett-Packard Co in July 1999, one of her first acts as chief executive officer was to start buying back the company’s shares. By the time she was ousted in 2005, HP had snapped up $14 billion of its stock, more than its $12 billion in profits during that time.

Her successor, Mark Hurd, spent even more on buybacks during his five years in charge – $43 billion, compared to profits of $36 billion. Following him, Leo Apotheker bought back $10 billion in shares before his 11-month tenure ended in 2011.

The three CEOs, over the span of a dozen years, followed a strategy that has become the norm for many big companies during the past two decades: large stock buybacks to make use of cash, coupled with acquisitions to lift revenue.

All those buybacks put lots of money in the hands of shareholders. How well they served HP in the long term isn’t clear. HP hasn’t had a blockbuster product in years. It has been slow to make a mark in more profitable software and services businesses. In its core businesses, revenue and margins have been contracting.

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