David Packard co-founded Hewlett-Packard (HP), one of the world’s biggest computer brands. He was an electrical engineer, entrepreneur, executive, and, amazingly, served as the United States deputy secretary of defense during Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Packard was born in 1912 and passed away in 1969, aged 83. He was educated at Stanford University, where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in electrical engineering.
Through his innovative building and management of HP (along with Bill Hewlett), Packard’s impact on the world of computing, and business management, is indelible.
David Packard achieved many noteworthy feats, but he’s best known as the co-founder of HP. He met Bill Hewlett while studying at Stanford University, and the pair formed a friendship that would go on to transform their lives.
So how did these two guys get together and change the world of computing?
Firstly, Packard gained valuable hands-on experience working in the General Electric Company’s vacuum tube engineering department for a number of months. This proved highly beneficial when Packard and Hewlett established their company in Packard’s garage after completing their studies, drawing on a modest initial capital investment of just over $500.
The pair decided on the name “Hewlett-Packard”, rather than “Packard-Hewlett”, by flipping a coin. HP’s first creation was the 200A audio oscillator: they sold it to Walt Disney Studios, and it was utilized in Fantasia’s soundtrack.
Packard and Hewlett continued to grow the company, producing devices for testing and measuring electronics, as well as computers, printers (inkjet- and laser-based), and calculators.
Their work involved creating a diverse range of electronic products, such as electronic harmonica tuners, air conditioning control units, and even exercise machines.
In 1947, HP was incorporated and Packard served as its president until 1964. He was also CEO and chairman of the board until 1968 when he left to serve as U.S. deputy secretary of defense. He remained in this position from 1969 to 1971.
During his time as deputy secretary of defense, Packard applied the resource management skills he’d developed throughout his business career to the organization of military operations.
He resigned from this post and returned to HP after two years, where he resumed his position as chairman of the board. This led to a massive reorganization of the company, and he stayed with the business until 1993.
While HP had undertaken custom computer manufacturing early (the 1940s), the company only started to market its own line of computer hardware at the tail-end of the 1960s. HP was one of the initial and biggest electronics brands to operate in the area now known as Silicon Valley, where such powerhouse companies as Apple, Google, and Facebook are based today.
Some of HP’s employees went on to form their own companies. Stephen Wozniak, for example, worked at HP before co-founding Apple with Steve Jobs.
Packard was also instrumental in making HP.com one of the earliest domain names to be registered — in 1986, no less.
He also dedicated considerable time and money to philanthropic pursuits, such as establishing the David and Lucile Packard Foundation with his wife. The couple also donated $40 million to help build Stanford University’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.
David Packard was known for a fairly (at the time, at least) unconventional approach to running a business. The company’s profits were reinvested back into HP to help keep debts low, and the staff was provided with more benefits than other businesses may have offered.
Packard also considered building and managing a company to be about much more than profit. In a speech for a team of managers at HP, Packard emphasized how strongly he felt that a successful business should be focused on making a "contribution to society":
"Many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. [...] [A] group of people get together [...] so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately."
He defined HP’s purpose and measurement of success as "how well we are able to make a product".
Packard was also opposed to a traditional business structure and instead felt "we must realize that supervision is not a job of giving orders; it is a job of providing the opportunity for people to use their capabilities efficiently and effectively".
This meant understanding the company’s objectives clearly, and translating these "into the objectives of the departments and groups and so on down".
This tighter focus on collaboration and team-based projects has become a fundamental element of many successful businesses, particularly those utilizing the agile methodology.
David Packard’s speech to managers at HP quoted above can be found in its entirety in his book The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company.
Extracts of the speech can be read online in The HP Way: Dave Packard on How to Operate a Company.