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September 12, 2005

Lew Platt, Former HP Chairman and CEO, Dies

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Lew Platt, who died last week at the age of 64, grew up in Johnson City, New York, one of the oldest towns in America, located in the rural northern tier of that state, northwest of Albany on the outskirts of the Adirondaks, and he learned mechanical engineering at nearby Cornell University before taking a job in 1966 at Hewlett Packard--a company that he would eventually run for more than seven years.

Platt's first job was as an engineer in HP's medical products division, but it is no accident of timing that the same year Platt came on board, HP launched its first computer, the HP 2116A, an air-cooled behemoth that was installed on a research ship used by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. This was also the same year that HP Laboratories was founded, an organization that would do fundamental and important research on solid state electronics that would culminate in its PA-RISC processors and its Unix server products more than three decades later. Platt had a hand in making HP a powerhouse of the server business and one of the two pillars, in the 1980s and 1990s, of the RISC/Unix business that made it a credible enterprise IT supplier long before HP acquired Compaq just a little more than a year after Platt retired in July 1999. In many ways, the years that Platt was at HP were its golden ones, where profits were easier to come by because of general growth in the IT business, but also because new markets were being created and HP was good at getting in on the action. HP was an innovator in test equipment, calculators, Laser and Inkjet printers, and then proprietary and Unix minicomputers.

Lew Platt was an HP lifer who remained as chairman until Carly Fiorina took over that position a year after Platt retired. Platt was a smart executive, and not just because he had an MBA from the Wharton School. In fact, his true smarts may have developed despite it, if you don't put much stock in MBA thinking. He made big bets. One of his biggest came after he had risen through the ranks in HP's Computer Systems Organization in the 1980s, eventually becoming executive vice president overseeing HP's Computer Products Sector in 1988 and named head of the CSO in 1990. This was when HP made its big bet on RISC/Unix, a bet that brought the company many tens of billions of dollars in revenues and probably tens of billions in profits. As company founder David Packard was moving to retirement, Platt was elected president and CEO in 1992 and became chairman in September 1993 as Packard retired. (Bill Hewlett, the company's other founder, had retired in 1987.) It was Platt who steered HP through the roaring 1990s, and luckily or cannily he decided to step down from his leadership positions at HP in 1999 and picked Fiorina, a smart, young outsider, to be HP's CEO and to succeed him as chairman within a year. He remained chairman until the summer of 2000, which was when HP must have started working on the Compaq acquisition.

When Platt left HP, the company's stock price was puttering along with modest growth after growing very fast--more than 20 percent a year of growth for both sales and profits through the 1990s, which is just stunning. This is Microsoft performance. This is Intel performance. This is Dell performance. This is IBM in the late 1960s and early 1970s performance. And it is one of the legacies that Lew Platt leaves behind. Mark Hurd, HP's current president and CEO, has three pairs of shoes to fill: Bill's, Dave's and Lew's. It's a tough job, but each leader in turn has done it, and even the controversial Fiorina did exactly what Platt wanted her to do: shake up HP and get it to find a strategy for growth for the next ten years in a rapidly maturing IT market.

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Editors: Dan Burger, Timothy Prickett Morgan, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
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