Experts remember late Oracle CEO Mark Hurd as a brilliant leader with a complicated and controversial legacy (ORCL, HPQ, HPE)


Mark Hurd

  • Mark Hurd rose suddenly as a major tech figure when he was tapped to lead Hewlett-Packard during a time of crisis in 2005.
  • He went on to have brilliant but controversial career, marked by incredible successes on the business front, but also scandals.
  • He was head of HP when it got mired in a spying scandal. Hurd was eventually forced out amid allegations of sexual harassment, though the HP board eventually found the accusations to be inaccurate.
  • Hurd went on to join Oracle where he rose to be co-CEO with Safra Catz, and a leading strategist for the tech giant’s bid to become a stronger player in the cloud.
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Mark Hurd rose suddenly as a major figure in the world of tech when he was tapped to lead one of Silicon Valley’s most iconic companies during a time of crisis.

Oracle announced on Friday that Hurd had passed away, not long after announcing that he was going on medical leave from his role as co-CEO. His death capped what many remember as a brilliant career, but one marred by controversy and even scandal.

In 2005, Hurd was on his 25th year as the little-known CEO of NCR, the Ohio-based maker of ATMs, when he became the surprise choice to lead Hewlett-Packard after the sudden departure of ousted chief exec Carly Fiorina. It thrust him into the spotlight for the first time in his career. 

“The opportunity to lead a company like HP doesn’t come along every day,” he told reporters when he was introduced. 

“I’m only concerned about the future,” he said, when asked about the turbulent tenure of his predecessor. But in what appeared to be an indirect criticism of Fiorina’s glitzy and high-profile leadership style, Hurd also said: “Don’t expect to see a lot of me.”

Mixed record at HP

But Hurd’s tenure at HP and in Silicon Valley turned out to be a dizzying rollercoaster ride. 

Hurd will be remembered as an operational and sales genius who streamlined HP’s operations, in moves cheered by Wall Street. But he will also be known for a turbulent reign at HP which was marred by severe cost-cutting, a corporate spying scandal, and another that included allegations of sexual harassment that ultimately forced him out and led him to a new role at Oracle.

“Mark Hurd is like a tragic hero in an ancient Greek play,” analyst Steve Allen of S2C partners told Business Insider. “He was a brilliant leader of large organizations, but his legacy will always be tainted by scandals.”

Other analysts focused on Hurd’s achievements as a business strategist.

Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies called Hurd “one of the smartest CEO’s I ever met.”

“He helped turn around HP and their stock doubled during his five years at the company. At Oracle he brought strong leadership and great strategic thinking that helped Oracle continue to grow. I was always impressed with his leadership skills as he was a brilliant tactician. This is a big loss for Oracle and the entire tech world.”

IDC President Crawford Del Prete described Hurd as a brilliant executive who helped two tech behemoths navigate a rapidly changing industry.

“He was an incredible guy,” Del Prete told Business Insider. “He had an unbelievable ability to sell, and to grasp and quantify complex topics.”

But looking back on his stint at HP, Del Prete acknowledged, “The things he did were painful for Hewlett-Packard.”

Shortly after Hurd took over, HP announced it was cutting 14,500 jobs. It was the second major round of cuts following HP’s merger with PC manufacturer Compaq, which led to the elimination of 17,000 positions.

Hurd became known for aggressive cost-cutting. It was good for HP’s bottom line and its stock price, but it wrecked morale within a company which had been known for its employee-friendly culture, inspired by its founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

But Del Prete also said the streamlining Hurd spearheaded also helped HP. “That was the stage that HP needed to go through” to become more competitive and more nimble player in a fast changing market, he said.

Another analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates had a less generous assessment.

“Hurd was financially driven and improved metrics at HP, but damaged the wellspring of HP’s prosperity by defunding R&D and interfering with the science-oriented culture of the labs,” he told Business Insider. “HP is far less influential than it was in Silicon Valley, and his pivot had a lot to do with that.”

A series of scandals

Then came the spying scandal.

A year after Hurd took over, HP was accused of launching what turned out to be a fumbled internal campaign to find out who was leaking confidential information. The campaign involved unethical and questionable tactics aimed at reporters and employees.

Hurd and other board members, including chairwoman Patricia Dunn, had to appear before a Congressional committee to explain what happened.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I would not do it again,” Hurd testified. “I agree there is a difference between legal and ethical.”

In 2010, Hurd faced his biggest scandal at HP, one that eventually ended his reign. He was accused of sexually harassing a contractor who served as an adviser to Hurd. The board subsequently found that there was no harassment, but they did find irregularities in his expense account reporting.

Hurd stepped down. One of the notable public reactions to his departure came from Larry Ellison, who called the HP board’s decision to force Hurd out “the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago.”

Just a few weeks after Hurd left HP, Oracle announced that it had hired him to serve as co-president with Catz. They were promoted to co-CEOs in 2014 when Ellison stepped down, although he remained as chief technology officer.

At Oracle, Hurd became known as the skilled sales leader and strategist, while Catz focused on operations, with Ellison serving as the visionary CTO and chairman providing guidance. Hurd played a critical role in Oracle bid to establish a stronger presence in cloud computing, where the company lags stronger rivals like Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

A better fit at Oracle

In a way, Hurd turned out to be a better fit at Oracle.

“Larry Ellison saw his capabilities as a sales executive and someone who can drive the software business forward,” Del Prete said. “Mark’s passion and aggressiveness was really a great fit within Oracle.”

Allen of S2C Partners said Hurd’s comeback after his fall at HP was impressive, although he and Oracle faced serious challenges in the future. 

“He was able to rise from the HP ashes and go on to do battle for Oracle, much to his credit,” he said. “In the end, the world has changed, and new leadership at, say Microsoft, has made all the difference. Mark Hurd was likely to be less successful in the future, than he was in the past. But his early death is tragic, nonetheless.”

When he was introduced as a major Silicon Valley figure nearly 15 years ago, Hurd appeared to foreshadow how his career as one of tech’s most famous executives would unfold.

“You’ll find that companies that have much history have tremendous assets in their legacy,” he said. “They also come with some baggage.”

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