Love him or hate him, it doesn't really matter, you
respect him! Larry Ellison is the enigmatic CEO of Oracle-PeopleSoft who has
continued to make headlines in silicon valley with
his controversial management style and predictions about high tech.
So just who is this billionaire
whose name strikes terror in the hearts of men?
You can read some of his
Also, the following article gives
us some insights.
November 01, 2003
Trouble With Larry
It's not possible to understand Oracle Corporation without
understanding Larry Ellison. No other large company is as dominated by a single
individual. Ellison cofounded Oracle in 1977 and has been chief executive for
its entire existence. Among seminal figures in the computer industry, he is
Microsoft's Bill Gates, a perennial rival, comes the closest to being like
Ellison, having cofounded his company in 1975. But Gates stepped away from
day-to-day operations in January 2000, handing over the CEO job to Steve Ballmer
while retaining the title of chairman. Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy, a
sometime partner, and Apple Computer's Steve Jobs, a friend of Ellison's, also
come close. However, McNealy didn't become Sun's chief executive right away. And
Jobs' tenure at Apple was interrupted when he was ousted in favor of John
Sculley, although he later returned. So Ellison stands alone in having founded
and continuously run his company for 26 years
In some ways, Ellison treats his company like it's still a start-up, with
himself at the center, making decisions on everything from advertising to
executive recruitment to product development.
In the early days, "Larry was a classic entrepreneur, all over every detail of
the company," recalls Tom Siebel, who should know, because after becoming
Oracle's top salesman he later founded his namesake company, Siebel Systems, an
Oracle competitor. "Larry made every decision, controlled the board of
directors, approved every large sales contract." Even today, when Oracle has
40,000 employees and around $10 billion in sales, Ellison's emotional impact is
immense, in keeping with the huge Orwellian-like image he projects on-screen at
company trade shows while he strides up to the stage.
Ellison, a true ham, loves to performno matter how large or small the audience.
In front of even a few people, "Larry feels compelled to perform," says Gary
Bloom, a former executive vice president and one-time heir apparent who left to
run a company of his own, Veritas, in 2000. "He gives the gospel of Oracle
through these non-stop performances. He'll give the same message 10 times with
the same lines" at trade shows with thousands of customers and at executive and
product development meetings with half a dozen executives.
The "gospel of Oracle," according to its primary interpreter Ellison, is that:
1. We have great technology; 2. Our competitors (whom he names and disses
repeatedly) will never catch up; and 3. You should be buying from us because we
can do it allgive you everything from the database to business applications.
Ellison has created Oracle in his own image. Now in his late 50s, tall and trim,
he has kept himself in excellent shape. His hair is still dark, running to
reddish; he has brown eyes and a short beard that helps to camouflage his long
jaw. Ellison radiates enthusiasm and charm. He's animated and engaging on stage,
at his best in informal Q&A sessions where he can rap with the crowd.
A fan of, and expert on, Japanese culture, he sees himself as a samurai warrior.
He also likes to quote a saying attributed to Genghis Khan: "It is not
sufficient that I succeed. Everyone else must fail." Ellison made Oracle into
the giant it is today by means of his vision, his personality, his
determination, his choices. But Oracle also made Ellison what he is today:
wealthy, famous, able to proclaim his views on a world stage. So if Larry is
Oracle and Oracle is Larry, what does that mean for the company?
For one thing, it means that Oracle's brand is inevitably bound up with
Ellison's schizophrenic imagethat of a brilliant visionary who can be brutal to
those who work for him. By identifying so completely with Oracle, Ellison has
insulated himself from other realities, like his difficulties in relating
one-on-one with other people.
When you listen to former executives like Ray Lane who, generally with cause,
fiercely dislikes Ellison, it's easy enough to dismiss him as a "Darth Vader"
who has gone over to the dark side of Silicon Valley's testosterone-fueled
culture in his obsession with making money and building the most important
software company in the world. (Not that Ellison is the only one possessed by
this goal, but he is one of the loudest and longest-surviving.)
But then you hear him rhapsodize over the sunrise that followed the dangerous
1998 Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race that could have killed him, and you realize
that Ellison is an extraordinarily complex individual. He runs the emotional
gamut, from poet to driven genius, from frat boy to insightful visionary, from
aging athlete to thoughtful philanthropist.
"I'll never forget the race down to Hobart when I had the wheel. I couldn't
handle it. There were no stars, you couldn't even see the sails, I didn't know
what to steer by. I had to turn the wheel over (to someone else). You discover
your own limits." He chokes up, in a manner that doesn't seem fake, when he
talks about it. Six sailors on other boats and several yachts were lost when
hurricane-force winds battered the participants in the deadly race.
Then there's the other side of Ellison, the self- absorbed leader who has
systematically purged Oracle of nearly all the executives who helped him turn
around the company in the early 1990s and build it into today's behemoth.
That's the Ellison who decided to make a hostile bid for PeopleSoft, an
important rival in the business applications business run by one of those
deposed Oracle executives, Craig Conway. Conway was livid, describing Ellison's
move as "diabolical" and "straight out of Genghis Khan." Ellison wasn't
particularly interested in PeopleSoft's employees, most of whom he reportedly
planned to jettison, nor in its product. It was a market share play, pure and
PeopleSoft's customers would be coaxed/coerced to move to Oracle's e-business
suite. At an analysts meeting, Ellison tossed off one of those joking ad-libs
that make his public relations staff cringe. He said that Conway was so incensed
he "thought I was going to shoot his dog." If Conway and the dog "were standing
next to each other and I had one bullet, it wouldn't be for the dog."
Whether or not Oracle succeeds with the merger, which is looking doubtful,
Ellison had once again demonstrated his ability to shake up the technology
industry with his warlike mentality and his refusal to be bypassed by events.
The PeopleSoft battle epitomizes the dilemma facing Oracle today: It is a very
successful, profitable company, one of the giants in the industry, largely
because of Ellison's drive and vision. At the same time, Oracle is one of the
most infamous, resented companies in the industry due to its high-handed
arrogance with customers, partners and competitors.
This attitude also radiates from Ellison, who has repeatedly suggested that
customers shouldn't mess with Oracle software. Forrester Group analyst Laurie
Orlov once wrote a memo to Oracle, entitled "Stop Blaming Customers," in the
wake of its introduction of Oracle 11i, an e-business suite of applications. In
her memo, Orlov declared, "Oracle has stooped to a new lowblaming its unhappy
11i apps customers for doing too much customization." Orlov suggested that
Oracle provide "less blame and more customer support." In the same time frame, a
report by Gartner Group analyst Betsy Burton expressed concern about Oracle's
loss of management and its alienation of customers. Although the issues are "a
natural part of being an aggressive, bleeding-edge competitor," she wrote, they
also cause enterprises to question their buying decisions on Oracle and open the
door to competitors.
That very thing happened as customers rallied to PeopleSoft during its battle
with Oracle. Take the state of Connecticut, which filed suit to block the deal.
"Oracle's hostile takeover bid has the potential to cost the state millions of
dollars and is a threat to the progress we have made in recent years in
technology improvements," said Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland. Connecticut
had signed a $100 million, five-year contract with PeopleSoft in 2002.
When a company has a leader who stirs as much passion as Ellison, that has major
consequencesboth good and badfor the brand. Ellison's grandiose visions for
remaking technology, like the concept of the network computer back in the
mid-1990s, have thrust Oracle to the forefront of attention. The company makes
database and enterprise application software, hardly exciting stuff for most
Thanks largely to Ellison, however, the company has become a household name.
He's as well known as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, even though Oracle sells
primarily to businesses, not consumers. But when Ellison gets sued for sexual
harassment (his accuser lost the case) or jokes about shooting a competitor, his
own notoriety boosts the perception of Oracle as the "frat boy" of the computer
industry, flamboyant, undisciplined, and in-your-face.
Oracle has become synonymous with Ellison, so much so that people openly
speculate about what will become of the company when the CEO leaves. Even before
then, Ellison's overriding dominance has implications.
For instance, would PeopleSoft's Conway have been so resistant to a merger if
not for the personalities involved? Oracle's perceived arrogance toward
customers, as voiced by Ellison, has opened the door for IBM to make inroads in
databases and SAP in business applications. By being true to his own superb
instinct for how the technology revolution was unfolding, Ellison was able to
create a singular force that helped to mold that very revolution.
The problem is that the revolutionary period has ended, and we're now at a time
that demands consolidators and synthesizers, not builders and rebels. Ellison is
unsuited to the current era, but he refuses to let go, believing that he can
still remake the world. Perhaps he can. But history will judge him by how well
Oracle fares when it is ultimately separated from its creator. TM
Veteran tech journalist Karen Southwick's new book, Everyone else must fail: The
Unvarnished Truth About Oracle and Larry Ellison, is scheduled for release this
month by Crown Business.
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