'Colossal failure' has eye on White House

'Colossal failure' has eye on White House
Mrs Carly Fiorina (left) posing for a selfie with a supporter at a Republican event at a high school in Iowa last month. Her mixed record at HP is under scrutiny ahead of her expected presidential bid today.

When Carly Fiorina decided to drop out of law school, her father, a law professor, said he did not think she would amount to much. But she proved him wrong by working her way up from being a secretary at a small real-estate business to become the first woman to lead a Fortune 50 company.

The former chairman and chief executive (1999-2005) of IT giant Hewlett-Packard (HP), who was named by Fortune magazine as the most powerful woman in business in 1998, while she was a top executive at telecom equipment maker Lucent Technologies, now has a new goal in mind - becoming president of the United States. She is expected to announce her bid for the White House today.

In a crowded field of male Republican presidential hopefuls, Mrs Fiorina, 60, certainly stands out as the only woman, for now.

And already her less-than-sterling record at HP has come under close scrutiny, chiefly because she is expected to use her business experience as a key credential for her bid.

While she chose to highlight how she doubled revenues at HP, news reports of her likely presidential bid point to her mixed record there, including being asked to step down in 2005 after a controversial merger with computer maker Compaq in 2002 that did not reap expected results.

Critics, and some who have worked with her, have used words like "polarising" and "a colossal failure" to describe her time at HP.

Politically, she has also stumbled: In 2010, she failed to win the Senate seat for California. Reports say she still owes consultants and staff half a million dollars from back then, which might indicate her lack of management skill (contradictory after saying she was a top executive).

With no political experience under her belt, there is scepticism from her party on her ability to be president. While they were together, her first husband Todd Bartlem had told reporters she had no political opinions and considered Dress For Success her bible.

However, her current husband Frank Fiorina, who is in his 60s, has complete confidence in her abilities. On his third date with her, he told her that, one day, she would run telecom giant AT&T, the company they both worked for at the time.

In 1998, at the age of 48, 13 years after they got married, Mr Fiorina decided to retire and support his wife's career, travelling with her even on business trips. Both of them raised Mr Fiorina's two daughters from his previous marriage.

Mrs Fiorina is hoping her experience in the business world will set her apart from the other Republican candidates who are mainly career politicians.

"My experience is different, my resume is different, my perspective is different, my voice is different. Oh, by the way, my gender is different," she told Bloomberg at a recent interview.

What the Stanford University graduate in mediaeval history and philosophy has going for her, though, is drive and conviction.

Her conservative positions, while almost a pre-requisite to surviving the primary elections where Republican voters will determine if she runs in the presidential poll, seem genuine and not coached.

For example, she has consistently been anti-abortion, even when running in the liberal state of California, because, she says, she has seen the effect of an abortion on a good friend and what it did to her.

On the personality front, she seems to be doing all the right things to connect with her audience. On her Facebook page, she is shown writing her own speech and having a pizza from a local joint.

Many on Facebook have pointed out how different she is from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who wore sunglasses going into an outlet of restaurant chain Chipotle.

One Facebook comment reads: "No dark sunglasses and a BlackBerry. You are genuine."

Her people skills could have been a result of re-locating many times as a child because of her father's legal career; besides being a professor, he was later a deputy attorney-general and a federal judge. Her mother was a painter.

In her memoir, Mrs Fiorina says she learnt to engage with people and ask them questions so that she could make friends and get to know her new environment.

But she cannot claim to understand the bread-and-butter issues faced by everyday Americans. She lives in a US$6.1 million (S$8 million) house, which sits on 2ha of land, part of a gated community in Northern Virginia, and is accustomed to flying in corporate jets.

However, nobody would dispute that she is a fighter. She has proved her worth, in the male-dominated world of technology and when she battled breast cancer in 2009 - bouncing back from chemotherapy straight into her first political race in 2010, even before her hair had the chance to grow back.

If she wins her party's vote as the Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election, she will most likely take on the Clinton machinery, and Mrs Fiorina is not about to bow out of that race without a fight.

She told Bloomberg recently that Mrs Clinton - a former secretary of state - is not the only one who has had dealings with world leaders.

"I have sat across the table from (Russian President) Vladimir Putin... I know (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel... I know Bibi," she said, the last being the nickname of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 4, 2015.
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