LAS VEGAS – Like it or not, Carly Fiorina was one of the few executives in IT with star appeal. When I was invited a while back to this week’s annual HP Americas Partner Conference here I looked forward to her keynote. She dazzled the IT industry. She turned heads; opened eyes and re-established

HP as a force to be reckoned with in the market.

I wasn’t the only person disappointed that Fiorina was not here. Other press, the majority of the partners, most of the distributors and probably even the HP executives would rather have had her on stage talking about HP’s latest plans for partners. Instead the attendees got Mike Winkler, executive vice-president for the customer solutions group and chief marketing officer. Some attendees mistakenly called him Henry Winkler, a.k.a. the Fonz from the Happy Days TV show.

Trying to measure up to Fiorina was obviously a tough task for Winkler. Especially when everyone in the audience of about 2,800 people wanted to know what really happened to his former boss.

To his credit he did not waste any time and did not mince any words.

“”There is a large moose on the table to get rid of,”” Winkler said to the relief of many people in attendence. He added that HP currently needs a hands-on chief executive. There was no debate between Fiorina and the board on strategy, he said.

Winkler even acknowledged Fiorina’s accomplishments in her six-year reign at HP. He said that her time as the head of HP was nothing short of “”remarkable”” in terms of building brand awareness and maintaining HP’s strong foundation.

Harry Zarek, president of Toronto-based solution provider Compugen, said he was impressed that HP acknowledged Fiorina’s many accomplishments as HP CEO. He was also pleased at the new focus given to channel partners. “”I’m very happy on their intent to invest more and have the business partners lead. It is all good news and I am very bullish on HP. There is no controversy for me,”” Zarek said.

Winkler announced that HP has entered into a six-month search for an external candidate. That person will have to subscribe to the current strategy that the senior management team is committed to.

The wagering public at the conference think Ed Zander, former Sun Microsystems president has an inside track to the CEO’s chair. A long-shot for the job is former Compaq CEO Michael Cappallas, the man who along with Fiorina engineered the biggest business deal in history. Now that Verizon is acquiring MCI Worldcom, Cappallas will be looking for work. Whoever finally wins this coveted job will have to accept the current strategy, which might handcuff the new CEO’s vision.

Winkler also announced that HP will not be spinning off its printer or PC business, which several partners were wondering about a few weeks ago. This was a startling non-announcement that was done to basically squash the rumour mill.

This was a no-nonsense type of keynote built more on substance rather than style. There were no flashy videos. No dumb gags or cheap stunts that raise more eyebrows than get laughs. Just one man trying to hold the attention the biggest audience in the history of this annual conference and answer the big question: Why aren’t you Carly Fiorina?

By addressing the major issue right off the bat Winkler settled the masses down and got them on track to what HP really wanted to accomplish here, which is grow channel business and increase margins for all partners. What is at stake is US$1.5 billion in possible new business from disgruntled IBM PC customers because of the Lenovo deal. And, HP wants to make sure its partners are hungry enough to go after that business.

It has taken this task very seriously, scheduling more than 1,000 partner meetings during the three days of the conference. It has flown in more than 200 HP sales people to create, in collaboration with partners, new routes to market.

HP also has also given more than 30 per cent of its direct accounts to the channel. It also rewrote the rules of engagement between HP internal sales with the channel: Starting today, HP sales people will be compensated by pushing solutions through resellers.

Winkler went on to divulge a shopping list of partner initiatives, such as commitments to spending more than a billion dollars in demand generation and to improving HP’s position in the digital home market, which it believes is a US$5 billion opportunity in the Americas.

It is also going to establish itself in emerging RFID market. HP has created something called The Noisy Lab in Nebraska to simulate inventory control and RFID solutions. Partners are welcome to do proof of concepts there.

At the end Winkler got a thumbs-up from the partners. His keynote will not make people forget Fiorina, but at least he had the smarts to not even try.

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