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Mark Hurd, President and CEO / Hewlett-Packard

Mark Hurd returns solution provider phone calls. That is one notable difference between Hewlett-Packard&'s new president and CEO and his predecessor, Carly Fiorina.

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While Fiorina relished the CEO-as-superstar role, Hurd, who took over in May following Fiorina&'s ouster, so far has emerged as a low-profile, operational CEO bent on returning HP to profitability and growth.

Just two months into his tenure, the 49-year-old executive took steps to cut 14,500 jobs and axed the umbrella marketing and sales organization championed by his predecessor, making HP&'s three business units responsible for their own marketing and sales.

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Hurd, a Baylor University graduate who attended college on a tennis scholarship, also has not been afraid to bring in outsiders to fill key positions. He tapped Todd Bradley, a former PalmOne and Gateway executive, to run HP&'s Personal Systems Group, and Randall Mott, former Dell CIO, to serve as HP&'s executive vice president and CIO.

While it&'s far too soon to say whether Hurd&'s moves will right the ship at HP, solution providers say initial signs are encouraging.

“I&'m very impressed with Mark Hurd,” says John Edwardson, chairman and CEO of CDW, Vernon Hills, Ill. “He is learning the business quickly. He is a decision maker, and he is very responsive. He returns phone calls.”

Hurd is also very blunt. Smaller solution providers who don&'t have Hurd&'s ear were left to ponder the cryptic remarks he made at an HP investor conference in September, where he talked about using an “iron fist” with partners.

“For the people who want to play with us, we are going to play with them twice as hard,” Hurd said at the conference. “To the people that don&'t, we are going to get them out of here.”

With talk like that, Hurd may have a hard time winning over smaller VARs. Josh Jacoby, president of InnovaCrew Technology Services, a solution provider in Roseville, Calif., says he was surprised by Hurd&'s comments. “I have loyalty to the customer and not the brand,” he says.

Under Hurd&'s direction, HP is moving to forge tighter alliances with close to 50 of its most loyal enterprise solution providers, including HP-only regional players. HP executives said in July the company intends to map key enterprise solution providers into its Technology Solutions Group sales strategy, effectively treating the channel partners and the direct enterprise sales force as a single team. The plan went into effect Nov. 1.

“That&'s music to my ears,” says Felice Katz, CEO of PKA Technologies, an HP-only enterprise solution provider in Suffern, N.Y. Katz says that Hurd so far has said all of the right things but still needs to deliver on the promises he&'s made.

It&'s too early to tell whether Hurd&'s evolving strategy will keep HP on a track of growth and profitably. For quarter ended July 31, sales were up 9.9 percent to $20.8 billion while income dropped 87.5 percent to $73 million. Strong PC sales and a turnaround in its enterprise products business aided by a strong channel showing fueled much of the growth, Hurd said.

Hurd&'s biggest challenge remains walking that thin line between earning loyalty from HP&'s diverse solution provider community and demanding it.

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