Book Review – Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company

April 18, 2007

For those of us who’ve known Hewlett-Packard mostly for top-of-the-line computer printers and recent corporate scandals, it’s somewhat mystifying to hear or read the almost religious zeal of an older generation that seems to regard the “old” HP as some sort of business utopia.  It’s just a company—could it really have been that great?

Michael S. Malone says yes, and his new book Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World’s Greatest Company sets out to show just how groundbreaking the company was. Its founders’ innovation in both new products and new ways of doing business created an environment in which customers wanted only HP products, employees reciprocated the loyalty HP showed to them, and future Silicon Valley generations tried and usually failed to follow in their footsteps.

Right off the bat, what makes Hewlett-Packard so noteworthy is Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard—their skills, their personalities, and the fact that for almost 50 years they partnered at the top of the organization they founded. It’s rare to see a business partnership last so long, and so seamlessly, especially in an era where CEOs prefer to have the spotlight shone squarely on them alone. Hewlett and Packard’s skills and demeanors were perfect complements to each other, and their lack of desire to put themselves on a pedestal is what helped create the family atmosphere that came to be known as “the HP Way.”

Malone writes Bill & Dave as a straightforward corporate history, but at the same time he wants you to read the book as a primer on how to run a business that not only turns a profit, but also takes care of its people and cares about the communities in which it does business.  To that end, throughout the book he notes particularly important lessons with an asterisk, then brings all of these lessons together at the end to create a roughly 10-page document that lays out a blueprint for entrepreneurial success. At first I thought the asterisk thing would annoy me, but once I’d finished the book I liked this short summary of how Hewlett and Packard made it all work.

The book begins by tracing Hewlett and Packard’s paths to their eventual meeting at Stanford, where Dave Packard was the tall, gregarious, can’t-miss golden boy sports star and Bill Hewlett was a short, dyslexic, somewhat reserved sort still getting over his father’s untimely death. Their shared interest in electronics would lead the two to eventually start Hewlett-Packard in the celebrated garage of Dave and Lucille Packard’s home on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto.

As with any corporate history, Bill & Dave is most interesting when tracing the early years, when Hewlett and Packard baked HP instrument panels in Packard’s oven and randomly priced their first product  in such a way that it was  impossible to make a profit.  They were quick studies, though, and it wasn’t long before the company was on its way.

Bill and Dave worked hard throughout HP’s ascendancy to create a family atmosphere, and this is perhaps their greatest legacy and why they are still so adored.  In the beginning, it was the founders handing out bonus checks to employees based on Hewlett-Packard performance and having Friday “beer busts” to let off steam.  Later on it was flex time and the Hewlett-Packard policy of avoiding mass layoffs by sacrificing revenue in favor of employees keeping their jobs—whether that meant sacrificing revenue by not hiring for short-term busy times or reassigning rather than firing employees whose skills no longer matched the positions they were filling.

An interesting aspect of HP’s history is that on two separate occasions one of the founders left the company to the control of the other.  In World War II, Bill Hewlett left to serve while Packard stayed behind to run the growing HP alone. (Hewlett-Packard equipment was being used by the U.S. military and thus the military wanted at least one founder back at HP to run the company.) During the Nixon administration, Dave Packard became Deputy Secreatary of Defense and helped revamp the United States’ procurement policy, leaving Hewlett to run the show in his three-year absence. In both cases, Hewlett-Packard hummed along, showing that while the founders preferred to be together, each could handle the job alone. Had they become so similar as to be interchangeable or had “the HP Way” become so ingrained that it no longer mattered?

Inevitably the book loses some steam as HP grows to be a massive international corporation and Bill & Dave grow old and eventually retire, but it’s amazing to read how they make the transition from that garage partnership to an incorporated small business to corporate behemoth so smoothly, always with an eye on profits, sentimental toward their employees but never sentimental toward products that no longer make the cut.

While author Malone can be a little too fawning in romanticizing Hewlett & Packard—they can’t possible have been as perfect as they are in these pages—overall Bill & Dave is a book worthy of the men whose remarkable lives it chronicles.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world.


One comment

  1. I’d agree.. HP is definitely an organisation with a lot of class. I worked there for an year and when I leave I knew I’d never be so content working anywhere else. 🙂

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