Carly Fiorina shined in debate. But will HP past doom her?

Who is Carly Fiorina?
Who is Carly Fiorina?

Carly Fiorina was declared the big winner of the "Happy Hour" GOP presidential debate on Thursday by social media and many political pundits.

But two letters may doom any hopes Fiorina has of actually winning the Republican nomination: H and P.

Fiorina was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) during a tumultuous time for the Silicon Valley legend.

She joined the company in July 1999 after a successful stint at AT&T (T) and its networking equipment spin-off Lucent.

But the tech bubble burst only a few months after she took the HP job.

Related: Fiorina's HP legacy looms over 2016 ambitions

Fiorina tried to jump-start the company's growth in the PC market by acquiring rival Compaq in 2002 for $19 billion.

That deal is now considered one of the worst in the history of the tech sector. And HP wound up laying off 30,000 workers during her nearly six-year tenure.

By the time of Fiorina's ouster in February 2005, HP's stock had lost nearly half its value. The tech-heavy Nasdaq index had fallen 27% during the same time frame.

hp fiorina

Adding insult to injury, HP's stock rose 7% on the news that she was leaving HP.

I covered Fiorina's departure for CNNMoney. At the time, an analyst covering HP told me "nobody liked Carly's leadership all that much. The Street had lost all faith in her and the market's hope is that anyone will be better."

To be fair, most big tech companies were still licking their wounds from the 2000 dot-com implosion and 2001 recession in 2005.

And HP was hardly alone in laying off people during those dark times for the sector. Cisco (CSCO), IBM (IBM) and Dell gave out their fair share of pink slips too.

But no former executives of those companies are running for president.

Related: Twitter declares Fiorina the #GOPDebate winner

Somewhat surprisingly, Fiorina's record at HP was not mentioned during Thursday's debate. But it's certain to come up again at some point.

Jason Burnett, the grandson of HP co-founder David Packard and current mayor of Carmel, California, told CNN's MJ Lee earlier this year that Fiorina "did damage to a great company and I don't want to see her do damage to a great country."

And check out the website Someone had the foresight to register that domain name last December.

The site features this text. "Carly Fiorina failed to register this domain. So I'm using it to tell you how many people she laid off at Hewlett-Packard. It was this many."

That's followed by line after line of :-( sad face emoticons. By the time you finish scrolling down, there's this kicker. "That's 30,000 people she laid off. People with families."

Fiorina has already defended her time at HP on numerous occasions.

Related: Fiorina appeals to tech community in presidential bid

After all, she's been through this before and seems clearly prepared to tackle any tough questions about HP.

Fiorina ran for Senate in California in 2010 and lost to Barbara Boxer. During that campaign, Boxer ran several attack ads highlighting the HP job cuts.

Speaking to CNN's Erin Burnett after she announced her presidential candidacy in May, Fiorina touted the revenue growth, market share gains and increase in patents during her time at HP.

She also expressed remorse for the layoffs and stressed that she was managing a tech company during historically bad times.

"I managed through the worst technology recession in 25 years. Every other technology company laid people off. It's the worst thing a CEO can do is have to say to someone, you don't have a job," she said.

But Fiorina continued to defend the Compaq deal to Burnett as well.

Related: The best and worst money moments of the GOP debate

Fiorina said that some financial journalists claimed "that a diversified tech portfolio would never succeed. It clearly did. Years later, it was clear that the merger was a very good idea."

That's debatable. Even though the Nasdaq finally topped its 2000 peak earlier this year, shares of HP are still more than 55% below the all-time high they set 15 years ago.

hp nasdaq

HP has had five CEOs since Fiorina and there have been even more layoffs during that time.

Many of those were in response to other bad acquisitions made by Fiorina's successors though, and not just lingering problems related to Compaq.

Related: HP: Death of a Silicon Valley titan

But the clearest sign of the Compaq merger's failure? HP is now in the middle of breaking up into two separate companies -- one for its consumer PCs and printer unit and one that sells hardware, software and services to big businesses.

Ironically enough, the undoing of the HP-Compaq deal is being overseen by current CEO Meg Whitman -- who also ran for public office as a Republican in 2010. Whitman, formerly the CEO of eBay (EBAY), lost to Jerry Brown in the California's governor race.

HP CEO defends Carly Fiorina's 'strengths'
HP CEO defends Carly Fiorina's 'strengths'

But Whitman has praised Fiorina for her time at HP.

"I suspect she was trying to do what I'm trying to do, which is make this company more competitive," she said to CNN's Poppy Harlow in June.

Still, Fiorina -- much like GOP frontrunner Donald Trump -- may find it tough to fight back criticism of her business record the longer she stays in the race.

-- CNN's Andrew Haag and Susie Xu contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jason Burnett, the grandson of HP co-founder David Packard and current mayor of Carmel, California.

Personal Finance

CNNMoney Sponsors