When Carly Fiorina announced that she was running for president in May, she was the only Republican candidate running on business experience. A little more than a month later, Donald Trump came down his escalator and into the race.
Now Fiorina plans to attack Trump’s business record and talk up her executive chops as CEO of Hewlett Packard. But a Yale management professor who studied Fiorina's tenure had a witheringly brief assessment of her performance.
“How did she do?" asked Yale University management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld. “Pretty badly.”
Fiorina took the helm at HP in 1999, and, in an attempt to resuscitate the company after the tech bubble burst, pushed through the company’s controversial $19 billion acquisition of Compaq three years later. Heirs to the company's eponymous founders opposed the deal publicly, but it squeaked through and the company doubled its revenue.
But not all revenue is equally profitable. Through the Compaq deal, Fiorina bet big on the commodity computer hardware business at precisely the wrong time. The company’s value plummeted.
All told, HP’s stock dropped more than 55 percent during Fiorina’s tenure as chief executive. The company laid off 30,000 employees under her leadership. Fiorina herself left with a $21 million golden parachute, having collected a total of $100 million in pay for her six rocky years in charge.
In 2008, when Fiorina was campaigning for John McCain, Sonnenfeld told the New York Times, “You couldn’t pick a worse, non-imprisoned CEO to be your standard-bearer.” Sonnenfeld also pointed out that in the decade since Fiorina was fired from HP she has not gone on to an executive role at another company -- a telling career development, or lack thereof.
“Carly Fiorina says she’ll do to the U.S. what she did to HP. I’m not sure we would want that,” Gautam Mukunda, a professor at Harvard Business School, told The Huffington Post. “The best thing you could say about her as a CEO is that she was adequate.” He offered a more critical view as well. “HP was an iconic American company, where ‘the HP way’ was this legendary idea of how one innovates," he said, "and Fiorina did a lot to damage ‘the HP way.’" So much so, he noted, that employees allegedly booed her at company town halls.
In 2010, when Fiorina ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate representing California, Arianna Packard, granddaughter of company co-founder David Packard, wrote a letter to three senators who had endorsed her to tell them she watched Fiorina "almost destroy the company my grandfather founded.”
Fiorina is in a better position than other GOP candidates to criticize Trump the businessman because she has run a publicly traded company with more than 150,000 employees, Mukunda said. That’s something even Donald Trump hasn’t done, despite the business credentials he touts.
But even if Fiorina can score debating points against Trump on this issue, business credentials are not actually as important a skill set for a president as either Fiorina or Trump would lead voters to believe. Historically, the U.S. economy hasn't done well under presidents with successful business track records, said Mukunda and Robert McElvaine, a history professor at Millsaps College who’s researched the subject.
“Saying that the government should act more like a business is like saying a cat should act more like a dog,” Mukunda said.
The facts undercut Trump and Fiorina’s claims that business success will make them successful presidents, McElvaine said.
"Though I guess Carly Fiorina is known for running HP into the ground, so maybe she’d be more successful," he added.
UPDATE: 9:45 p.m. -- Fiorina addressed her controversial business record during Wednesday night's debate, saying that a man who'd led her firing, Tom Perkins, had recently taken out a New York Times ad that said, according to her, "I was a terrific CEO; the board was dysfunctional." The ad was actually taken out by a super PAC backing Fiorina, but does include a glowing testimonial from Perkind.
Donald Trump then went after Fiorina's record, citing Sonnenfeld's analysis. Fiorina responded by calling Sonnenfeld a Hillary Clinton supporter.
Emily Peck contributed reporting.