So what are we to make of all this? Honestly, I don’t really know. I suspect we can’t know — Larry Ellison is such a unique, protean character that he simply doesn’t really fit into any model for entrepreneurs or corporate CEOs we have.
People have said the same thing about Gates and Jobs, but I’ve always found them perfectly explicable. Ellison is another story — to find his like we probably have to cast back to the 19th century: to the so-called Robber Barons like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Gould. Not for their actions (though there are some parallels there too) but in their ability to construct, and then impose, their reality upon employees, customers and even competitors.
I’ve visited this reality on several occasions. Years ago, I was assigned by a computer magazine to write a story about how customers felt about Oracle’s products. I expected to write a simple, relatively positive story with a few concerns. What I got was endless spleen-venting by furious Oracle customers.
Having spent millions on Oracle database software, only to discover it fatally flawed, they now found themselves trapped in an endless cycle of upgrades, patches and re-fixes. They hated Oracle, yet they saw no escape.
I came away from the experience convinced that Oracle had no future, that its customers would bail out the moment they got the chance. I was wrong: after a few hesitations, the company again grew by leaps and bounds and Ellison only became richer.
When I first ran Forbes ASAP magazine, my editors and I used to walk across the lagoon to Oracle’s Emerald City of office towers and eat at one the company’s restaurants. The food was great, but the pressurized atmosphere of the place only underscored what I’d heard about working there. Experience told me that the inevitable outflow of human capital would eventually sap Oracle of its competitiveness. It didn’t.
Normal Rules of Business Life Don’t Apply
I watched as Ellison made one outrageous technology announcement after another, announcements that, in retrospect, were designed more to keep Oracle in the public eye than to produce real products.
If Andy Grove or John Chambers had made similar vaporware announcements, they would have lost all credibility. Not Larry.
Three years ago, I interviewed Ellison for a PBS television series. It was classic Larry Ellison: from Oracle's heavy-handed attempts to control the venue, to the guest arriving almost two hours late, even to Larry’s private food table in the green room.
During the interview, as Ellison played tough, cried, and alternated between business genius and superannuated adolescence, I found myself successively charmed, repelled, sympathetic and scared.
Every reporter’s instinct screamed at me that this man could not possibly be worth $25 billion, be the head of a giant corporation, or the trusted supplier of the world’s greatest institutions. And yet, he was all of those things.
Untarnished by Hostile Bid for PeopleSoft
Then, most recently, there was the incredibly ham-fisted and callous hostile takeover attempt of PeopleSoft.
Any other CEO might have soft-pedaled the deal, tried to welcome the employee/shareholders of PeopleSoft. Not Larry: he promised to fire them all and kill the company’s products.
Could any other CEO gotten away with this without being turned into a national pariah? Remember Chainsaw Al Dunlap?