SAN FRANCISCO -- Newly appointed Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman says she's getting down to business -- vowing Wednesday to decide the fate of HP's personal computer division by the end of this month -- but the unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor is also continuing a campaign to make California more friendly for entrepreneurs and corporations.
"We're all investors in the state of California," she said during a lunchtime speech hosted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "California needs a turnaround."
Whitman could have been speaking about her new employer, as well. The former chief at eBay (EBAY) was named to the top post at troubled HP last month after a year in which the company's stock lost nearly half its value, as previous CEO Léo Apotheker was widely criticized for his efforts to boost HP's commercial tech business while pulling back from PCs and consumer gadgets.
Whitman, who lost to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in her first try at public office last year, devoted most of her speech to a version of her campaign trail prescription for improving California's troubled finances -- starting with a cap on state spending and reducing business regulations to spur more hiring. But she told reporters afterward that she intends to move quickly on key issues for HP.
"We're going to try our hardest" to make a decision this month on whether to spin off the company's $40 billion PC division, Whitman said.
HP had previously said a resolution might take until the end of December. Since her predecessor announced HP was reviewing options for that division, Whitman has acknowledged that uncertainty over its fate has discouraged employees and customers alike.
Whitman also declared "the end of big acquisitions" for HP, at least in the near term, as the company tries to digest the $10 billion deal to buy British software-maker Autonomy that Apotheker also negotiated before stepping down. "We've got our plate full at the moment," she added.
But even as she reiterated her goal of meeting the company's financial targets for the current quarter, after three successive quarters in which Apotheker was forced to lower the company's forecasts, Whitman ducked questions on whether she expects to cut HP's spending or lay off workers.
"The honest truth is I don't know yet," she said, while promising to provide more detailed financial plans at the company's next earnings report in November.
Whitman also did not answer directly when asked whether she would hesitate to move jobs outside the state, after she had stressed in her speech that getting California businesses to hire should be a priority.
"We want to keep as many jobs as we can in California. California is the cradle of innovation," she said. "If California can work with business to reduce regulations, to change the lawsuit environment, I think more businesses would stay here."
But she added, "In the end, every company needs to make smart decisions about where they expand. What's the cost of doing business?"
Improving the state's business climate was the central theme of Whitman's speech, in which she painted a dire portrait of California's recurring budget deficits, rising public debt and lagging spending on education. Whitman also called for reforming the state's tax rules and lowering the tax burden on business. But she acknowledged that such changes face steep political obstacles.
Instead, Whitman said the state should first limit spending increases to the rate of inflation and population growth, although she did not identify specific spending areas to target.
Cutting regulations and cracking down on frivolous litigation would also encourage businesses to hire more people, she argued, which in turn would increase tax revenue and lower demand for unemployment benefits and other social services.
"The No. 1 thing we can do to get out of this mess is growing our economy," added Whitman, who is scheduled to give a similar speech this week to an Orange County business group.
While she has not commented on any future political aspirations, Whitman said Wednesday that she'll continue to speak on public issues that she said inspired her to run for governor.
She's also staying active in behind-the-scenes politics: The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Whitman agreed to hold a fundraiser for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on condition that he not enter the GOP presidential race, in which her longtime friend and business mentor Mitt Romney is already a candidate.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey