Silicon Insider: Ellison Beelzebub

Has there ever been a more mercurial, demonic and inexplicably successful figure in high-tech history than Larry Ellison?

He seems like an overgrown adolescent, playing with his MIGs, yet he is the second richest man in America, his wealth self-made. Everyone complains about the quality of Oracle’s products, yet great companies continue to buy them.

His regular new technology announcements — remember the NC? The media server? — inevitably come to nothing … and yet I, like everyone else in tech, listen his latest announcement with the greatest seriousness and argue its merits for months afterwards.

Ellison is also a notoriously callous boss who has created a poisonously competitive environment at Oracle (as the saying goes in Silicon Valley, the first year you work at Oracle you think it’s the greatest job in the world, the second year you wonder what’s wrong with you; and the third year you go into therapy). Yet people fight to get work there.

He is also a notorious rake, with a very public lawsuit in his recent past, and appeared to treat Oracle as his personal harem (his fourth marriage was also announced this week). And yet, a few months ago, I sat at lunch with two of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley and high technology, and listened to them tell me that working for Larry Ellison was the single most exciting experience in their professional careers.

Why? “Because he’s brilliant. Because he takes risks every day. And because nobody on earth knows so much about relational databases — there’s so much you can learn from him.”

“Yeah, but he’s crazy,” I countered.

“Oh sure,” one of the eminent ladies replied, “But that’s part of the excitement too.”

Settling Question of Succession … Or Not

I was reminded of that conversation Monday when I read the announcement that Larry Ellison had stepped down as chairman of Oracle.

As with everything else Ellison does, it isn’t quite what it seems. In truth, Ellison is indeed stepping down as chairman, but remains as chief executive. The presidency of Oracle will be shared by two individuals, Safra Catz and Charles Phillips.

Although Oracle roundly denied it, this shuffling was seen by many outsiders as Ellison’s latest attempt to deal with the question of succession at Oracle. Succession is always a difficult problem at great entrepreneurial start-ups, typically because the companies become such extensions of their founder that he can’t bear to excise the extremity and the company can’t imagine life without him.

Succession became an issue at Oracle four years ago when two of Ellison’s likely successors, president Ray Lane and Executive Vice President Gary Bloomm, both quit within months of each other. In Lane’s case in particular, it didn’t seem to be an amicable parting. Wall Street worried.

Now Monday’s office reshuffling. Was Wall Street convinced? Apparently not: Oracle stock was unperturbed. Analysts didn’t fail to notice that Oracle’s new chairman, the company’s long-time chief financial officer Jeffrey Henley, is one of those rare instances in American industry in which a vice president jumps right to the chairmanship without ever passing through the CEO’s office.

How odd.

In Silicon Valley, Henley earned mostly sympathy for his promotion. As one Valley veteran told me over lunch, “How would you like to be the boss of a billionaire who also owns the company?”

A Throwback to the Robber Barons?

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