Nick Wilson: 'There isn't a market sector we are not in'

The Business Interview: Despite a tough year, the managing director of Hewlett-Packard UK remains positive
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The Independent Online

Tucking into a mushroom risotto backstage at the O2 with Sir Paul McCartney last week came as a little light relief for Nick Wilson. The UK boss of computing and printing giant Hewlett-Packard used the event to plug HP's role in digitising the former Beatle's expansive catalogue of songs.

But away from the celebrity spotlight – and the vegetarian feast – Mr Wilson is part of a campaign to prove wrong the doubters who think HP's strategy just isn't meaty enough.

The McCartney deal was a rare piece of good news for the world's largest technology company by revenue which has had one of its toughest years.

Despite the turmoil, Mr Wilson is positive. He explains: "A lot of things wouldn't happen in the UK without HP. Paying pensioners and the security for our national defence for instance. We have got to get better at telling people about what we do."

Now he is making it his mission to tell government that technology isn't just important for the UK economy – it is also the most important thing to be taught in schools.

At group level, HP is on its third chief executive in two years. Meg Whitman, the former Ebay chief, was brought in when former boss Léo Apotheker was forced out in September following its £7.1bn takeover of Cambridge-based data specialist Autonomy.

Since joining in September she has performed a u-turn on Apotheker's plans to sell off HP's personal computer business and has been trying to steady the ship. The instability prompted analysts to complain that the Silicon Valley behemoth lacked focus and the price paid for Autonomy was eye-wateringly high. HP's share price fell 47 per cent in the year to September reaching a low of $22. It has recovered to $27, valuing the company at $55bn (£35bn).

"The business suffered from a classic example of miscommunication," Mr Wilson admits. "But Meg has now made the decision, and we are in a much better position."

HP is the biggest supplier of software and IT to the UK government. Next Mr Wilson wants to grow this business to include not just the technology it provides but lucrative strategy advice too. Education, the police, local government and health are on his list.

Education is one of Mr Wilson's hobby horses. With a 15-year old daughter studying for GCSEs and a 19-year old son in his first year at university, he has first-hand experience that technology teaching in school is ruined by an obsession with spreadsheets.

"In Korea, every kid is getting an iPad, but in the UK 14-year-olds learn more about technology outside of school than inside. Facebook should be taught in schools. Unfortunately, by the time a girl is 16, the school system has put her off technology completely."

Concerned the next generation of graduates will abandon technology as a career option, Mr Wilson gives up his spare time to teach at the University of West England in Bristol and HP also devised a course for De Montfort University which guarantees a number of work placements for students on its four-year degree programme.

Before joining HP, he was European boss of US software provider CSC, which has since come under scrutiny for its contract to upgrade the NHS computer system.

Government spending cuts mean there is little growth in the sector. HP has had projects cancelled – including when the Ministry of Defence scrapped its Harrier jets project last year.

"It is a very tough market," Mr Wilson says. "Public sectors across the globe are shrinking but not all sectors are at the same level.

"And the public sector's appetite for cost saving means there is work we can do for government."

But Mr Wilson believes there is plenty of growth for the data side of the business, especially as the Autonomy deal beds down. The Cambridge company's technology can sift unstructured data which can be used to make sense of reams of emails to detect corporate fraud, for example.

However, its consumer business is feeling the pain just like retailers, restaurants and service industries that sell to the UK's cash-strapped consumers.

"Consumer demand for PCs is 25 per cent down. A guy isn't going to buy a new printer if he can just buy a new cartridge."

Cloud computing could be HP's saviour, enabling companies to store information at its data centres.

Wilson adds: "There isn't a market sector we are not in. Where there is growth we are there."

And if the McCartney connection can sprinkle a little stardust on this computing giant, all the better.