Here are two instances where Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina tells her story of how she started as a secretary and went on to be the first female chief executive of a major technology company. (NBC/CNN)

At a polished New York press announcement in 2001, Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, then the most powerful woman in American business, unveiled an immensely risky mega-merger whose success she promised with her signature showmanship: “If you don’t believe it, watch.”

But 3 1 / 2 years later, after HP had shed half its market value and slashed more than 30,000 jobs amid what rivals called “the dumbest deal of the decade,” Fiorina was quietly fired from her first and still only job as a CEO. She succumbed to a brutal battle with the founders’ families, a worker uprising and, ultimately, what she called a “boardroom brawl.”

“In the end, the board did not have the courage to face me,” Fiorina wrote in her 2006 memoir, “Tough Choices.” “They did not thank me and they did not say goodbye.”

Now a rising star in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Fiorina, 61, has pointed to her leadership of the printer and computer giant to showcase her corporate savvy and courage under fire. She has blamed the dot-com bust, sexism and an ineffective board of directors for helping sink what was then a global juggernaut.

But in interviews with more than two dozen former HP senior directors and employees, many remember Fiorina’s legacy as troubling and divisive: A high-energy marketer, she nevertheless failed to deliver on lofty promises, alienated her workforce and presided over a disastrous reign at what was once a Silicon Valley pioneer.

Supporters defend Fiorina as a strong-willed bomb thrower tapped to give a staid company a wake-up call, and they say her talents helped enliven the khaki-clad workforce of innovators and engineers. They also credit her with carving out and sticking to a forceful course of action during one of the harshest periods for the tech industry’s old guard.

“Carly was invigorating. She was exciting. She was a leader in every sense of the word,” said Steve Huhn, a former HP vice president of global sales who supports her candidacy. “There was a dynamic sense that we could do something great.”

But critics say her focus on rapid, radical internal changes­ clashed with the communal corporate values long known as “the HP Way.” And when the company began to crumble, they say, her command-and-control tactics drove away ambitious minds and blocked measures that could have helped turn HP around.

“She decided she was going to impose a more demanding culture, and it became political, in the sense that you were either a supporter of the direction Carly wanted to go, or you became fearful that you could become a target,” said Roy Verley, a 21-year HP employee and longtime chief corporate spokesman who left in 2000 because of what he calls the “Carly purge.”

“The difference was night and day,” Verley said, “between a company that encouraged people to have ideas . . . to more of a top-down, controlling environment in which ideas could lead to your exit.”

Fiorina declined to comment for this article. Her campaign has defended her record by saying the company doubled its revenue and “grew jobs” under her tenure — but that’s because it purchased a large rival.

Other metrics of HP’s performance paint a more revealing portrait of the company’s downfall. Under Fiorina, company shares collapsed more than 50 percent, far worse than those of competitors such as IBM and Dell and the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index. The year she left, HP profits were $1 billion less than when she started, even though the company was twice the size.

Because it was her only time leading a company, Fiorina’s 5 1/2 years at HP offers an unmatched view of how she could handle challenges as commander in chief. It could also present her most unavoidable obstacle as she embarks on her national campaign. Already, rivals such as Donald Trump have seized on the HP “catastrophe,” marked by years of bitter layoffs during which workers began labeling her “Chainsaw Carly.”

While stumping this past week at packed campaign events, Fiorina has sought to reframe her role in the successful-if-thankless saving of a company from near-certain annihilation. But former employees are speaking out for fear that Fiorina will rewrite the distressing history of a company many came to love.

As Brad Whitworth, an 18-year HP veteran and former senior communications and marketing manager, put it, “Carly has never let facts get in the way of her being able to tell a story.”

Fiorina’s extraordinary rise in business got off to a slow start. The law-school-dropout daughter of a law school dean and prominent federal judge, Fiorina had worked as a secretary at a real estate firm before quitting within a year to move with her first husband to Italy, where she taught English and studied for entrance exams to business schools.

At 25, after earning an MBA from the University of Maryland, she joined AT&T as a sales representative, refusing to sign on for the telephone company’s savings plan because she believed that she’d be gone within two years.

Fifteen years later, Fiorina had become one of the company’s most visible rock stars, spearheading the $3 billion spinoff of Lucent Technologies, then the biggest stock-market debut in U.S. history. The hyper-growth firm would crumple after her departure, but not before bolstering Fiorina’s reputation as an aggressive dealmaker with a golden touch. In 1998, Fortune trumpeted her tireless work ethic and sales tactics, and crowned her, at 44, “the most powerful woman in American business.”

Her prestige appeared at a critical time for HP. Founded in 1939 in a garage in Palo Alto, Calif., the grandfather of Silicon Valley had over the decades become revered as much for its inventive legacy as its laid-back corporate way of life. Years before Google bought its first beanbag chair, HP was inviting workers to drink Friday afternoon beers at the office, play in its after-hours orchestra or chat with executives who practiced a breezy leadership style called “management by wandering around.”

But as smaller start-ups seized on the Web, HP’s hardware-heavy business model fell behind, seemingly lured into complacency by the easy ink-fueled profits of selling printers but innovating less and less by the year. The company had sailed below investor expectations for nine quarters in a row during the country’s biggest-ever tech boom. In Fiorina, the board saw an outsider who could shake the lumbering giant awake.

It was an extraordinary leap of faith. Fiorina had never worked at a computer company and had no experience as a CEO. But directors said they believed that Fiorina would flourish by way of her charisma, brand-building prowess and iron will. Later, even Fiorina would tell a Stanford University commencement crowd that she “was an unexpected choice.”

In July 1999, Fiorina was tapped to lead a company with $40 billion in revenue and sights on becoming the biggest computer maker in the world. The board gave her a $3 million signing bonus and stock worth $65 million, and agreed to pay to ship her 52-foot yacht from the East Coast to the waters near San Francisco Bay.

In her first months, Fiorina was celebrated as a dynamic turnaround artist with virtually unlimited drive. In an introductory profile called “Keeping Up with Carly” in HP’s internal company magazine, a former assistant said Fiorina often took calls while running on the treadmill and described her presence as being like “a shot of B-12 vitamins.”

Fiorina seemed to relish the limelight, penning a management column two months after her hire for the New York Times (“Seek tough challenges: They’re more fun”). The business media was captivated by her pluck and power in a male-dominated industry: In a 1999 BusinessWeek profile, she said she swore by Giorgio Armani suits and liked waking up at 4 a.m. to work out and feed wild birds. (“It’s good thinking time.”)

But for all the story lines, Fiorina seemed to reject the most obvious one: Her achievement as the first woman to run a Fortune 20 firm. At a news conference announcing her hire, she said she hoped that “everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling.” (She would later apologize, calling it a “dumb thing to say.”)

Fiorina moved quickly, rolling out a $200 million global brand campaign that included building a traveling replica of the founders’ garage for exhibit on Wall Street and in France and China. Fiorina, too, went on tour, posing for TV ads and introducing herself on HP stages in 10 countries. “Leadership is a performance,” she told Forbes in 1999.

Her flamboyance stood out at humble HP. Employees grumbled when her portrait was speedily hung in the lobby beside those of founders William Hewlett and David Packard, and some whispered that the flashy promotions seemed to have little to do with the company’s workhorse home-office product lines. As business author Jim Collins wrote then in the Wall Street Journal, “Whose brand was she building anyway?”

Supporters say her early campaigns were aimed at a colossal task: Make nimble a sprawling workforce, reinvent a moribund brand and confront six decades of corporate habits, some of which had gotten HP in trouble in the first place.

And she could be charming: One day when Gilles Bouchard, then HP’s chief information officer, was walking the halls with his son Yohan, who had a mild disability, Fiorina paused her preparation for a hectic analyst call to invite them both in for a tour of her office. “She knew my son by name,” said Bouchard, now chief executive of Livescribe. “A lot of CEOs couldn’t care less about this stuff.”

But some employees remember Fiorina as far more detached with her rank and file. Where her predecessors were known for small-talking with workers over french fries at the HP cafeteria, Fiorina struck some as standoffish, holed up in her office and seemingly disinterested with the engineering and employees behind the sale.

In speeches to clients, some workers said that they began to notice her embellishing HP’s future products, strategy and even history. She bulked up one old company chestnut — that Walt Disney Studios had bought HP’s first product, an audio oscillator — by falsely saying that Disney himself had invited the founders to his studio and asked for a special design.

“It took away credibility. She was a fabulous presenter, but that’s all she was about,” said Karen Lewis, HP’s former corporate archivist. “It’s like prima facie — just the face you see. Behind it, she didn’t know much about the business.”

Beyond marketing, Fiorina struggled early in dealing with the bursting of the tech bubble, even as she pledged sharp improvements to the company’s bottom line. HP’s stock plummeted amid reports of slumping sales, and many investors started to question whether Fiorina was the right leader to turn things around.

As HP faltered, Fiorina masterminded the deal that would define her career: HP’s payment of $25 billion in stock to acquire computer giant Compaq, then the biggest merger in American tech. The timing did HP no favors — Fiorina’s New York unveiling came during the dot-com downturn and the week before the Sept. 11 attacks — but Fiorina would later say she had little choice. “Neither the market nor the organization,” she would tell Fortune, “understood the difficulty HP was truly in.”

Both companies had been gutted by the increasing commoditization of computers, whose cheaper production and growing ubiquity had decimated profits. But Fiorina said she believed the “decisive” joining of forces­ would bulk up HP’s foundering computer division, save billions in redundancies and give it the size to win over clients from rivals such as Dell and IBM.

Analysts, investors and many HP employees slammed the deal as a desperate pairing of two weaklings in hopes of producing a superfirm. Neither HP nor Fiorina had ever engineered a massive takeover, further rattling confidence in what Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy called “a slow-motion collision of two garbage trucks.”

The merger led to one of the nastiest shareholder fights in corporate history. Fiorina clashed with members of the HP founders’ families, who toured the country hoping to dissuade investors from approving the deal and funded national newspaper ads calling it “a $25 billion mistake.”

The stakes couldn’t have been higher for Fiorina, whose employment was on the line: Walter Hewlett, the founder’s son, said, “We don’t need someone training on the job, not this time.” But in 2002, after an eight-month free-for-all, the merger won in a cliffhanger, with about 51 percent of shareholders’ votes. The battle was over, but Fiorina’s war for HP had just begun.

The merger demanded a vast melding of operations across 160 countries and thousands of product lines. Fiorina quickly consolidated power, folding 83 business units with their own budgets and staffs into six mega-divisions, centralized under her control.

The turf battles between Fiorina and deposed executives grew heated: In her memoir, she likened them to “a thousand tribes.” Her autocratic methods, critics say, grated on veterans of a consensus company known for not making big decisions without everyone onboard.

Fiorina had long since left behind the kid gloves of previous chiefs in favor of a take-no-prisoners approach. After a disappointing earnings report in 2003, as executives later told the Wall Street Journal, Fiorina lit into senior managers, saying, “You’ve let HP down, you’ve let the board down and you’ve let me down.”

“People did not confront issues” at HP, she wrote in her memoir. “Everyone was extremely pleasant . . . but no one seemed to have a competitive spirit or a sense that time mattered.”

Fiorina broke with tradition in another way, by kicking off HP’s first mass layoff: More than 30,000 jobs would be axed in about half a decade. Quiet seething at HP’s Palo Alto headquarters turned to outright revulsion. An internal message board became so overloaded with bile about Fiorina that the company shut it down.

Susan Bowick, the former global head of human resources, said she remembers Fiorina’s attempts to soften the blow: When an executive suggested immediately revoking computer and security access, Fiorina pushed for more time so they could clean out desks and hold farewell parties, saying that “we had trusted these employees for many years, and we were not going to flip a switch and treat them differently.”

Publicly, however, Fiorina did not seem to flinch. In a 1999 Forbes interview, she said, “If one-quarter of the people in HP don’t want to make the journey, or can’t take the pace, that’s the way it has to be.” Years later, after a bruising backlash, she doubled down, saying if she could do some of her layoffs of top executives differently, she “would have done them faster.”

She also became an enthusiastic booster of hiring overseas workers, a practice she called “right shoring.” In 2004, she told Congress, “There is no job that is America’s God-given right anymore.” Later, she would say she was unduly punished for taking necessary action: “When men cut jobs, they’re seen as decisive. When women do, they’re vindictive.”

As HP’s fortunes sank, Fiorina’s take-home pay soared. She averaged $3 million in salary and bonuses every year, not counting her tens of millions of dollars in stock options, company proxy statements show. Other high-level spending saw big boosts: HP replaced two aging planes with Gulfstream IV jets and leased a fifth plane — particularly beneficial for Fiorina, whose contract allowed her personal use of the company’s air fleet.

Fiorina also reprised her leading role as celebrity CEO. She walked the red carpet at the 2004 Academy Awards and, at HP keynotes and Las Vegas electronic shows, posed with stars such as Sheryl Crow, Dr. Dre, Alicia Keys and Matt Damon, who joked, “I think I’m married to Carly, I’ve thanked her so much today.”

In the post-merger years, HP routinely undershot investors’ projections and Fiorina’s promised targets. Its gamble on the dwindling profits of the computer business was looking more misguided by the year. Amid the crisis, Fiorina pushed out respected executives and persuaded others to jump to competitors, further angering the board.

Analysts suggested that the company hire a chief operating officer or give some of HP’s well-regarded executives more day-to-day control. But Fiorina refused, saying “the magnitude of challenges” facing HP meant “a CEO better have his or her hands on the wheel.”

Larry Sonsini, a Silicon Valley superlawyer and HP’s general counsel at the time, says Fiorina’s tight grip highlighted her commitment to the job. “She never delegated a problem,” he said. “At 2 a.m., she’d be in the war room, so to speak, redrafting press releases with us.”

But her fierce resistance to letting go, for fear of losing control, prevented others from potentially slowing HP’s nosedive. “She was strong on vision but crap on execution,” said Rob Enderle, a business analyst who has followed HP for nearly two decades. “The board really wanted her to have a strong number two, but she was worried she’d be replaced.”

In early 2005, as the company’s stock continued to stumble, HP’s board pushed for Fiorina’s ouster. One director, the late Patricia Dunn, blamed Fiorina’s resistance to heeding advice and said her organizational structure had left directors “hopelessly confounded.”

That February, the directors voted unanimously to call for Fiorina’s resignation, but in her memoir she said she pushed to call it what it was: She was fired. Like many top executives, she drifted to earth with a golden parachute, pocketing a cash severance of $21 million plus stock and pension benefits worth about $20 million. HP received a parting gift, as well: On the day of her firing, its stock surged upward 7 percent.

Fiorina has blamed HP’s performance on a troubled board and the “worst technology recession in 25 years” and said she made the “tough choices” needed to revive a teetering bureaucracy and keep the company alive.

But analysts say HP under Fiorina missed one of the industry’s biggest gold-mine moments: the dawn of the Internet age. In 2001, Google was slugging it out with larger search rival AltaVista, Mark Zuckerberg was in prep school and a declining Apple was staking its turnaround on an unproven new product, the iPod.

In her memoir, Fiorina swatted away what she calls the “recycled” criticisms that she was “too controlling” and a “publicity hound.” Like her supporters, she blames the blowback on a vocal camp within HP that was resistant to change. In an essay last month for CNN, Fiorina compared her forced exit to that of Steve Jobs, saying, “I was fired because I challenged the status quo.”

Fiorina has also sought to portray her time at HP as rescuing a troubled giant. When she announced her candidacy, she said she was “very proud” of making HP a “market leader.” At a campaign event Tuesday in South Carolina, Fiorina said she was hired “to save the company, and that’s what we did in a very difficult time.”

But HP is far from saved. Its stock price is a third what it was at its 2000 peak, and last year the company announced that it would spin off its computer and printer business, a final rebuke to Fiorina’s long-term goal of computer dominance. A day before Fiorina’s star turn at the second Republican debate, a stumbling HP announced that it would slash 10 percent of its 300,000 workers, one of the country’s single largest corporate layoffs.

That has not stopped Fiorina from making allies out of former enemies, including Tom Perkins, the venture-capital billionaire and former HP director who voted for her termination. In a New York Times ad last month paid for by the super PAC backing Fiorina’s campaign, he said her firing was not because she was unsuccessful but because she “had the strength of character and courage of conviction to stand up” to board cronyism.

That message is a far cry from what Perkins said in 2007 about Fiorina’s demise: “The employees were in the parking lot singing, ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead.’ And she still doesn’t understand that she bears some responsibility for that. It’s amazing.”

So why the change of heart? Perkins said he has been “delighted” at her debate performance and says she’d make a great president. Records show he has given $25,000 to the Carly for America super PAC.

Many former employees have not been so forgiving. Even now, a decade after her ouster, some in the founders’ families attest that Fiorina’s time at HP left a deep scar.

“She did a real disservice to a great company,” said Packard’s grandson, Jason Burnett. “It’s in large part because of her time at HP that it is no longer the same company my grandfather founded and ran successfully for decades.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.