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Hewlett: Legend of High Technology Stepping Aside

February 08, 1987|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — William Redington Hewlett walked into the room, an expression of mild surprise on the face that says handsome even through the wrinkles.

"Not the head of the table," he said, shaking his head slightly as he acknowledged the seating arrangement that left him little choice. "I always sat in the middle," he continued, pointing along the modest table that once served for board meetings. "Better communication that way. And I don't like it to look like I'm talking down to anybody."

With a slight limp and a gentle stoop to his already compact 5-foot, 10-inch frame, he acceded and settled into the waiting chair. Shirt-sleeved and wearing a blue-and-green combination that bespoke a plain workingman's taste and budget, Bill Hewlett began his last interview as vice chairman of the company that made him a billionaire.

"It's a non-event as far as I'm concerned," he said of his scheduled Feb. 24 retirement from the company named for his alliance with David Packard that began nearly 50 years ago. As in nearly everything else having to do with Hewlett-Packard, Hewlett politely declines any claim to individual credit or notice.

His is the first name of a legend. In Silicon Valley, and across corporate America, Hewlett-Packard is more than a company name. It is more than the famous first garage-to-riches story of high-technology entrepreneurship.

Hewlett-Packard stands for a style, a certain way of running a company, treating employees, encouraging individual creativity and producing quality products. It is the original born-humble and built-to-stay-that-way electronics company. And in that context, Hewlett's unassuming manners are more than fitting. They are, say associates less modest on his behalf, the lifeblood of "the HP way."

The HP management style has become the way in many other companies in Silicon Valley and across the United States. More than his several patents, his company's progress and products, it is the HP way that Hewlett sees as his legacy. "It was the management style. . . . That is what I am most proud of," he said, after a long, reflective pause.

It truly was a Hewlett-Packard style, he said. "We shared all the decisions."

They both, he said, "realized people wanted to do a good job" and agreed on the way to provide the proper environment. "Dave and I set up the philosophy of management by objective."

That meant that employees were given latitude to do their jobs within the objectives of the department and the company. Hewlett and Packard established the MBWA style--management by wandering about; they rigorously practiced the open-door policy and eschewed the trappings of titles and success. No big offices or fancy furniture distinguished either Bill or Dave, as they are still known about the plant, from the troops.

And if the employees didn't know that Hewlett and Packard were partners in more than business, they soon found out.

Unanimity of Ideas

"We just thought alike," said Hewlett. He compared some of the experiences to parents being tested by a child who has gotten a "no" from one and goes to the other in search of a "yes."

"If (an employee) didn't get an answer he liked from me, he'd go to Dave, or the other way around. But almost invariably, he'd get almost the same answer. . . . We had the same ideas on where we were trying to go."

Their unanimity was the backbone of Hewlett-Packard as it grew from a $538 initial investment in 1938 to a $7.2-billion company today.

Hewlett related a tale akin to the one about the man who was always right except the one time he mistakenly thought he had been wrong. "We disagreed one time," he said, "and the discussion got very heated, but that was really because we misunderstood each other's position. . . . We were actually in complete agreement."

This kinship also extends to politics--both are Republicans--and in sharing their personal fortunes.

When Hewlett, now 73, talks about his money, it is as if wealth still is new to him, or at least not very important.

Being Rich Not Easy

"It's nice to be able to do things, . . . but I don't consider it the highlight of my life." He said 99% of his personal wealth comes from his stock in the company; his holdings of 23 million shares put him in the $1-billion range.

Packard is twice as rich. The Hewlett family holdings were divided when Hewlett's first wife, Flora, died in 1977, and the proceeds of her shares went to the charitable Hewlett Foundation.

"Being rich hasn't been easy. It's been the hardest on the kids," said Hewlett.

"There was a tremendous difference between the first kid and the last in terms of what was around them, and how they were perceived. . . . They were treated differently because their family was wealthy."

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