Carly Fiorina (search), dismissed Wednesday as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ), was famed as the visionary behind a bold merger and a bid to create the world's most comprehensive technology company but fired for her failure as a hands-on manager.
Texas-born Fiorina, 50, was the first woman to run a top 20 U.S. company. Known as a smooth salesperson, Fiorina pushed through the acquisition of Compaq Computer (search), and her dedication to that dream was also seen as her failing.
"Carly basically drew a line in the sand and said 'my way or the highway' and the board said 'OK — the highway,"' said David Katz, chief investment officer at Matrix Asset Advisors, whose firm was among HP shareholders against the Compaq deal.
Fiorina saw her own fate tied to the merger in a 2001 interview. "I think the company's success will be my legacy," said Fiorina. "The company's failure will be my failure, with all the predictable consequences of that."
Fiorina first worked at HP in summer job during her studies of medieval history and philosophy at Stanford University. She studied law briefly and took a business masters degree before moving into the technology world in 1980 at AT&T (T).
There, Fiorina, an Italian speaker and classical pianist, gained fame helping to spin off Lucent Technologies (LU).
Even early on she was a "very, very tough competitor", former AT&T colleague and current Cisco Chief Executive John Chambers said in a television interview.
HP picked her as its first outside leader in 1999 amid glowing press reports. She was brought in to revitalize a Silicon Valley icon fallen into malaise.
A failed attempt to buy PriceWaterhouseCoopers' consultancy in 2000 and the successful 2002 purchase of Compaq raised her image even as she became more controversial.
Aiming to change HP, Fiorina even took on the founding Hewlett and Packard families, squeezing out victory in a shareholder vote decided in the last few minutes.
More than two years later Wall Street is showing relief at the departure of the star businesswoman who is leaving after the board said she was failing to execute company strategy.
Some investors Wednesday saw vindication for the anti-merger view that HP would be watering down its technological prowess — and profit margins — by buying Compaq, chiefly a personal computer maker.
Others believe Fiorina — known as a tough and hard-working executive — faced tougher scrutiny than most other corporate leaders.
"I gave Carly extra points for being a woman. The community looked harshly at her because of that. She was in the spotlight the entire time and everyone was watching what she did," said IDC analyst Roger Kay who said Fiorina bore the pressure well.
"Being a CEO is a tough job," said Lucent chief Patricia Russo Wednesday when asked about Fiorina's departure.
There have been rumblings in the past year that Fiorina could have a place in the cabinet of President George W. Bush.
"I don't think she's going to get another chance at large company," said James Drury, who heads Chicago-based executive search firm James Drury Partners. She could instead get involved with private equity firms, he suggested.
"It would be totally different than what she's been doing," he said. "More opportunities to get involved in politics, serve on boards. She's young, she's bright she's energetic, she has great leadership skills."