Larry Ellison had an official job change, and will be CTO and Executive Chairman of Oracle — with the major product groups reporting to him — instead of CEO. I first met Larry 31 years ago, and hung out with him quite a bit at times. So this feels like time for a retrospective.
For starters, let me say:
- I met Larry Ellison the same year I learned of him, which was 1983. We were in fairly active touch until the late 1990s. Then we drifted apart. That period corresponds roughly to the eras I characterized in my Oracle history overview as Hypergrowth, Plateau, and Professionalism.
- With Larry as with other “larger than life” industry figures I’ve met, what you get in private and what you see in public are pretty similar. I’ve had high-intensity dinner conversations with Larry (numerous times), Bill Gates (a few times) and Ross Perot (once) that are quite in line with their public demeanors.
- With Larry, facts can be mutable things. The first time I met him, I came away with the impression he had a PhD. The second time, it was only a masters degree. Ten years later, he’d almost graduated from the University of Chicago, but had failed or not take a French exam. And I gather his educational resume has retreated a little further since.
- Larry is hilarious, in a scathing way, and an excellent story-teller. Unfortunately, his humor rarely translates well to out-of-context print.
- Larry at one time told me he’d selected my firm PaineWebber for the Oracle IPO. When he told me he was reneging, part of the explanation of why he wanted top-brand firms like Goldman Sachs was the analogy of having the girl on your arm be the most beautiful one at the party. Even then, it was clear that being envied was important to him.
- By the late 1980s, Larry was famous for agreeing to appear at conferences and not showing up. I kidded him about this, saying that he’d acquired an international reputation for rude unreliability. In a mock-sad voice he replied “Yeah — I used to just piss off my close personal friends.”
- Larry is one of only two people ever to blow me off for a meeting at his house. But he was very gracious when he came to the door and apologized.*
- In the late 1980s Larry promised to seed-fund a venture of mine. When Oracle hit a financial rough patch, he faded on me. A few years later, despite the lack of any kind of written commitment, he gave me $25,000 in apology.*
I didn’t realize until I made that list how many stories I have about Larry breaking promises.
*Larry is generally very good at apologies, perhaps because he’s had so much opportunity to practice them.
Of course, Larry’s habit of missing meeting schedules can be brutal on his employees. But that major annoyance aside, my general sense of his employee dealings has been they were tough-but-fair.* The only one of the many Oracle firings I didn’t understand at the time was that of hugely successful COO Ray Lane – and truth be told, Ray hasn’t come close to his Oracle level of success since. There have been some hirings I thought were doomed when they happened, but that’s a different matter — business judgment, not ethics. Of course, it helps in treating people fairly when your stock skyrockets and makes a whole lot of them rich.
*And when a complaint is made to the contrary, I tend to disbelieve the complaint, even the sexual-harassment ones.
Another group of stories that stick in my mind boil down to Larry delegating or not as the case may be.
- That $25,000 check I referred to above wasn’t actually signed by Larry; his assistant Jenny Overstreet evidently had that level of signing authority over his account.
- On the other hand, well into the 1990s, Larry had to personally approve every Oracle hire and every expenditure over $5,000. (When Jenny finally retired, that limit quickly rose to $15,000.)
- It was even longer that Larry personally approved every Oracle press release.
- In the 1980s Larry kept trying to offload “business” types of considerations on other executives. After various failures, he told me he was looking at them more himself and actually was finding P&Ls and so on rather interesting. Ironically, this was around the time he hired Jeff Henley as CFO, and finally had somebody outstanding to delegate that stuff to.
- In the same time frame he said he kept expecting somebody to rise to the level of replacing him as CEO. But in his estimation that person never actually emerged.
- Larry once told me he was bestowing millions of dollars more on his third ex-wife than their prenuptial agreement had called for, without objection. As he framed it, she was looking after his children, and he regarded keeping her happy as being of the utmost importance.
- And then there was the time Larry had a headache before a major speech, and sent his PR staff scurrying to get him aspirin of his particular favorite brand (Bayer).
Yet another group of stories focuses around aggression and relentless energy. Most remarkable to me were a couple of times when Larry described a sales manager’s particularly energetic aggression to me with admiration and glee. Some of that was around the famous “Cut off their oxygen” phrase, originally applied to competitor Ingres and later repurposed for other rivals. But then there was also the time I heard about a 2-on-2 basketball game, featuring Larry, sales (and marketing?) chief Mike Seashols, and Mike’s direct report Gary Kennedy. Apparently, Gary shoved Mike around quite a bit during the game, and Larry cited that as a strong foreshadowing that Gary would soon also shove Mike aside for his job. And it’s from Larry that I first heard the Genghis Khan quote to the effect that the greatest pleasure in life is to see your enemy utterly defeated.
Finally, I’ve heard a lot of stories about Larry Ellison and attractive women — and except for the employee-harassment tales, I believe them all.