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Insiders detail Fiorina and Whitman's fraught history

People who have worked with the GOP former executives say friction runs through their relationship dating back to John McCain's presidential bid. Others have a different view.

July 11, 2010|By Maeve Reston and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times

One Saturday in early 2008, the top economic advisors to then-presidential candidate John McCain gathered at his Virginia headquarters to hash out the details of a major economic address.

The attendees included Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard who had supported McCain from the campaign's earliest days, and Meg Whitman, the former head of EBay who had recently joined the team after her first choice, Mitt Romney, dropped his bid for the White House.

Whitman came armed with flip charts and markers, intending to run the meeting. The tension between the women was thick, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting who refused to be named discussing the dynamics of the campaign.

As the meeting began, Whitman turned to Fiorina, the first woman ever to run a Fortune 20 company, and tersely suggested that she take notes.

It was not the last time friction would arise between the two high-powered women, each used to running the show. But two years later, none of that was evident when they were thrust onto the same stage as the California Republican Party's nominees for governor and senator. At a raucous rally the morning after their primary wins in June, Whitman said that career politicians "have just woken up to their worst nightmare — two businesswomen from the real world who … know how to get things done."

Since then, Whitman and Fiorina have often been painted as one and the same, Silicon Valley duplicates now part of a rising sisterhood of leaders in the Republican Party. Although they are the first California women to serve as their party's nominees for the offices, they are no more ideologically or stylistically similar than any two men who might occupy the roles. Nor did they run their companies in the same manner.

Professor Jennifer Chatman of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business said the recent tendency to lump them together glosses over their distinctions. "It's like — OK, we've got two gals running now, they must have been putting their makeup on in the bathrooms together. Would we assume the same if one were a man or both were men?"

This account of Whitman and Fiorina's connections is based on nearly two dozen interviews of Silicon Valley officials, political operatives and others who have worked with the women over the years or followed their careers closely, including eight who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the women's power in business and politics.

Representatives for both women said that their relationship was friendly and without friction and that any suggestions to the contrary were fabrications. In the case of the economic meeting, Fiorina took notes "of her own volition," spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said.

"Those are spun-up stories that have to be considered ridiculous," said Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Whitman and Fiorina arrived in Silicon Valley about the same time, but with different business demands before them. Hired by EBay in 1998, Whitman over the next decade shepherded a $4.7-million startup with 30 employees into an $8-billion operation with 15,000 workers. Fiorina was hired in 1999 to shake up a $42-billion company with more than 84,000 employees, a venture that lasted until her dramatic ouster in 2005.

Whitman donned the polo-shirt-and-khakis attire of her employees and carried on the founders' tradition of working in a cubicle. Fiorina was an Armani-clad dervish, jetting frequently to the many countries where HP did business.

Whitman's image melded with the low-key, customer-centered ethos at EBay. The former management consultant had worked for Romney as a consultant at Bain & Co. before taking executive jobs at Disney, Stride Rite, FTD and Hasbro.

She was "an astute reader of situations" who was able to move "masterfully" through challenges like defining the relationship between the company and its sellers, Chatman said.

"What you saw was a deliberate matching to the needs of the organization," Chatman said. "As a political being, she has some kind of intrinsic talent at that."

Whitman's homespun image resonated with the collectors and entrepreneurs who drove the online auction firm's early success. She spoke of the collection of Beanie Babies on her desk (a favorite of early EBay enthusiasts) and of selling the sports equipment that her sons had outgrown on EBay. As the company grew increasingly successful, however, Whitman's behavior changed.

"In the early days, Meg was very down to earth," said a former EBay employee who worked closely with her and did not want to be named criticizing her. In the later part of Whitman's tenure, the former employee said, Whitman was seen as pushing for personal gain and perks.

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