Together at Last (Part I)

THE COMPUTER INDUSTRY”S LARGEST MERGER EVER, Between the storied Silicon Valley pioneer Hewlett-Packard and Houston”s twenty-year-old Compaq Computer, is turning out to look a lot like the marriage of an aging billionaire and a much younger bride with some very attractive attributes (do J. Howard Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith spring to mind?). The family heirs tried to stop the nuptials — Walter Hewlett, the son of company founder William Hewlett, fought the merger tooth and nail in a bitter proxy fight and unsuccessfully challenged it in court, and the Packard family”s foundation also opposed the union — but love, or rather lust for future profits, prevailed. The companies planned to consummate their $ 23 billion deal on May 7, and afterward, Compaq would take the name of its betrothed. The combined company would be called Hewlett-Packard. Will Hewlett-Packard and Compaq live happily ever after?

The union of the second- and third-largest U.S. computer companies, respectively (only IBM is bigger), certainly looks promising on paper. To hear the CEOs tell it, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq badly needed each other to survive in an industry in which hot products don”t matter as much as the size and the ability of a company to package services into customized solutions for business. Both companies were stumbling competitively and slashing their workforces before announcing the merger last September. Compaq had one of its toughest years ever in 2001, losing $ 785 million. But together the computer makers will have $ 87 billion in revenues and an annual potential cost savings of $ 2.5 billion.

Michael Capellas, the tech veteran who has been Compaq”s CEO since 1999 and led it through a difficult restructuring, said the deal creates “greater opportunities to grow our business.” Carleton “Carly” Fiorina, the Hewlett-Packard chief executive who put her career on the line to champion the merger, said that Compaq will double the new company”s PC sales force and give it leading positions in servers, computer storage systems, and the kinds of expensive high-performance computers used by the military and the world”s largest stock exchanges.

The spoiler in this scenario could be a guy named Michael Dell. Capellas and Fiorina are suiting up for battle with Dell”s namesake computer maker in Round Rock, as well as IBM. According to market-research firm Gartner Dataquest, Dell”s worldwide PC shipments grew more than 18 percent last year, while everyone else lost ground. That was enough for Dell to topple Compaq as the world”s number one PC vendor. Dell is also now applying its low-cost strategy to servers, a market that Compaq dominates, and is pushing into the corporate side of computing, where Compaq is well established.

In the debate about whether the merger is good for Hewlett-Packard or for Compaq, though, one question hasn”t been answered: Is it good for Texas? Here are a few things to consider.

Doesn”t the merger mean fewer choices for consumers? I take the side of the old argument that megamergers often translate into less competition in the marketplace. The five major players in the U.S. PC business — Dell, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and IBM — will become the Final Four. Compaq and Hewlett-Packard will have a formidable combined share of 22.5 percent of the nation”s PC market, placing it behind Dell”s 24.5 percent. Consumers probably won”t see higher prices for PCs, though, because Dell sells directly to customers rather than through retail channels, which keeps its costs low and puts price pressure on the market.

Capellas takes the broad view that the merged company will be able to offer customers more, not less. The new Hewlett-Packard will provide a wider range of choices under its umbrella than anyone else, he maintains, and with less confusion. “There will be no other technology company — not IBM, not Dell — that will be able to offer customers what the new HP will,” Capellas wrote in an e-mail interview. Still, when Texas consumers walk into a retail store after the merger takes effect, they”ll have one less choice when it comes to PCs.

Won”t more people lose jobs? Fiorina calls the deal “a merger of consolidation, not diversification.” And everyone knows what consolidation means: layoffs. Compaq has already laid off 8,500 workers from its roster of 71,300 employees worldwide. The merger intends to wring more cost savings partly by cutting the combined company”s workforce by 15,000 jobs. Where else the ax will fall has yet to be determined, but speculation is that Compaq, as the acquired instead of the acquirer, will likely get the brunt. Compaq employs about 10,000 people in Houston and an additional 1,100 in Austin, Dallas, Plano, and San Antonio.

Capellas looked to the long term, arguing that the combined company will be in a stronger position to compete and succeed in key market areas. That means the merged company could eventually create more jobs in Houston. And Fiorina has hinted that Hewlett-Packard might transfer people from its pricey Silicon Valley digs to less expensive office space in Houston. Some people involved in the high-tech industry in Houston say the long-term payoffs could outweigh the short-term layoffs during the transition. “Five years from now, you could see more people employed there because of the merger than you would have without,” said Paul Frison, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit Houston Technology Center, which has a new computer lab courtesy of Compaq.