The HR Optimizer

By Nancy M. Davis Feb 1, 2010

February CoverIn 2004, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s former chief executive officer Carly Fiorina hired Marcela Perez de Alonso to head human resources. In February 2005, board members fired Fiorina.

Shortly thereafter, the highly admired Hewlett-Packard (HP) became the subject of criminal investigations and public criticism. Not the best time to be the top human resources executive.

Yet, when Mark Hurd came on board as CEO in April 2005, Perez de Alonso prevailed as a trusted team player—giving both leaders a head start in a relentless drive for efficiency.

Hurd “not only supports us, but relies on us to help the business grow,” says Perez de Alonso. It’s a mandate she takes seriously: Pending regulatory approval, 3Com will become the latest in a string of 39 acquisitions. Perez de Alonso integrated workers from those companies into the computing, printing and technology services giant with about 321,000 employees in 170 countries—including thousands with HR responsibilities—and fiscal 2009 revenue of $114.6 billion.

Early training in organizational psychology, the scientific study of solutions to human problems in work, proved to be fine preparation for an efficiency campaign. Ann M. Livermore, executive vice president of HP’s enterprise business, finds Perez de Alonso “astute and quick in terms of her perception of strengths of business leaders,” sometimes accurately assessing job candidates in five or 10 minutes.

HP’s Chilean-born vice president of HR began as an HR generalist with a Chilean startup bank. A recruiter from Citibank, now Citigroup, came calling, offering the irresistible lure of international assignments. She has worked in Florida, New York and Mexico. “My boss said, ‘You should go and run a business; get out of your comfort zone,’ ” Perez de Alonso recalls. She did, serving as a division head for Citibank responsible for showing a profit. Such positions are vital for top HR leaders, she insists, because they teach “how to combine business outcomes with HR outcomes.”

This insight helped Perez de Alonso contribute to HP’s restructuring. While paring more than 15,000 jobs, the overhaul gave business-unit leaders more authority in operations, supply chain management and sales, for instance, and bolstered global shared services, including HR.

HP’s largest acquisition, with EDS, came in 2008 and added about 139,000 employees. John M. Renfro, HP vice president of global workforce strategy and planning, lauds Perez de Alonso for assimilating these holdings with HP’s culture. He admires her for building workforce planning and talent management systems—the latter includes career development and performance management closely tied to incentives—that permit managers to drive productivity with rigor. Perhaps as a result of such efficiency, HP had no layoffs attributable to the recession, and its stock, at $52.24 on Jan. 12, was near a 2007 high above $53. However, most employees took a 2009 cut in base pay; at year end, they received a supplemental one-time bonus equal to the reduction.

In June 2009, Perez de Alonso launched a tool that she claims will precisely predict productivity drivers. HP’s “HR Optimization Model” features cost, productivity, quality and employee engagement metrics. “Is the workforce producing the results we expect?” she asks. If not, “Anyone can sit in front of a screen and look at all these variables and do a diagnostic,” she explains. “You can sit down with a business leader and say, ‘We can optimize your workforce to deliver those results.’ ” The tool helped earn Perez de Alonso the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Human Capital Leader of the Year Award.

“I not only think about how much we could do to help business grow, but how much we can grow the people,” she reflects. “I have passion for combining both.”

Marcela Perez de Alonso

Education: 1978, advanced degree in organizational psychology, Catholic University of Chile.
Current Job: 2004-present, executive vice president of human resources, Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif. 
Career: 2003-04, head of savings products, International Retail Bank, Miami and New York; 1999-2003, head of Citigroup North Latin America Retail Business Operations, Miami; 1994-99, head of HR for Citibank Global Consumer Business, New York; 1989-94, president of People International consulting firm, Miami; 1984-89, HR leader for Citibank in Chile; 1977-84, HR generalist for a startup operation, Banco de Santiago, now one of the largest banks in Chile.
Personal: 55, born in Chile, married with five children.
Diversions: Photography, cooking.

The author is editor of HR Magazine.


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