Everyone Else Must Fail: The Unvarnished Truth About Oracle and Larry Ellisonby Karen Southwick
Karen Southwick’s unauthorized account provides the full story of Larry Ellison’s brilliant, controversial career. Ellison’s drive and fierce ambition created Oracle out of the dust and built it into one of America’s great technology companies, but his unpredictable management style keeps it constantly on the edge of both success and disaster. The hostile bid for PeopleSoft is just the most recent example. With one clever strategic move, Larry Ellison threw much of the business software field into play.
The saying “It’s not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail” has been so often used by or associated with Ellison that most people think it originated with him. It’s actually attributed to Genghis Khan, but it’s a dead-on way to describe not only the way Ellison thinks about competitors but the way he runs Oracle. His weapons are not marauding hordes, but Oracle’s possession of database technology that is crucial for keeping mission-critical information flows working at thousands of organizations, corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies.
Inside Oracle, Ellison has time and again systematically purged key operating, sales, and marketing people who got too powerful for his comfort. Most notable was Ray Lane, Oracle’s president for nine years, who was widely credited with bringing order out of the chaos that was Oracle in the early nineties and growing it into a ten billion dollar company. Ellison got rid of the one key person who was building confidence with Wall Street, business partners, and customers that Oracle was no longer flying by the seat of its pants and had its act together. Ellison’s mania for absolute control and his inability to coexist with the very lieutenants who bring much-needed stability to the company have brought Oracle to the brink of collapse before, and may well do it again.
Ellison is a throwback to an earlier, much more freewheeling version of capitalism, the kind practiced by the nineteenth-century robber barons who ran their companies as private fiefdoms. Larry Ellison is one of the most intriguing and dominant leaders of a major twenty-first-century corporation, and Everyone Else Must Fail raises the question of whether Oracle’s products and the reliance placed in them by so many are too important to be subject to the whims of one man. While giving credit to Ellison’s brilliance and devotion, the book sounds a warning about an ingenious man’s tendency to be his own company’s worst enemy.
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"IT IS NOT SUFFICIENT THAT I SUCCEED. EVERYONE ELSE MUST FAIL."
The saying "It is not sufficient that I succeed. Everyone else must fail" has been associated with Larry Ellison so often that most people think it originated with him. Actually, it came centuries ago with Genghis Khan. Ellison has referred to the quote in conversations, then laughed rather unconvincingly and tried to distance himself from the sentiment. But it sticks nonetheless. For Ellison, the founder and chief executive of Oracle Corporation, is like a modern-day Genghis Khan who has elevated ruthlessness in business to a carefully cultivated art form. His weapons are not the marauding hordes but his company's possession of a key technology platform, his willingness to exploit it, and his disdain for anyone who gets in his way. That includes subordinates, whom Ellison runs through and discards with unusual ferocity. He cannot tolerate executives who dare to stand up to him and has systematically purged Oracle's senior ranks of much of their talent. Many of the departed, among them Tom Siebel and Craig Conway, are running Oracle competitors, while others, such as Ray Lane, have notable second careers. But Oracle remains in their veins. Siebel is head of Oracle competitor Siebel Systems, Conway of PeopleSoft, and, as a venture capitalist at famed investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Lane is busily searching for the next Oracle.
Ellison named his company after ancient Greek prophecies that came from the gods and were spoken by persons in a trance. He does seem to lead in mystical fashion, proclaiming visions that others must follow for Oracle to move forward. These visions often prove to be profoundly insightful, as when Ellison, ahead of nearly everyone else, decided that software would trump hardware and, later, that his company's technology must encompass the Internet. He has come a long way from the college dropout who started at the bottom rung financially and socially. The bastard child from a tough neighborhood in Chicago is now among the richest men in the world, with a net worth in the billions. Ellison bootstrapped a tiny company with two friends and a few thousand dollars; he was the force who willed it to succeed and handpicked talented people who could help him achieve his dream. Today that company is the second-largest software vendor in the world. Along his way to the top, Ellison pursued and courted women by the dozens, marrying three of them and getting sued for sexual harassment by one of them. He learned to fly fighter planes, sail maxi-yachts, and collect Japanese art. He can discourse on everything from ancient samurai soldiers to modern biotech investing. Ellison is a throwback both to the early days of Silicon Valley and to the robber barons of the nineteenth century, when colorful visionaries founded companies in their own image and governed according to their whims.
Indeed, in mid-2003 Ellison again showed his capacity for reinvention and surprise by launching a hostile bid for Conway's PeopleSoft, which had just announced a plan to merge with a smaller competitor and displace Oracle as the number-two player in business software. Although Ellison has toyed with the notion of acquiring companies such as Apple Computer and Netscape, Oracle had never done a major takeover in its twenty-five-year history. The CEO believes firmly that Oracle's technology is the best in the business, and anyway, the company's culture doesn't lend itself to easy accommodation by outsiders. However, Ellison, who is now proclaiming that the number of players in the technology industry will shrink dramatically in coming years, evidently decided that bidding for PeopleSoft was worth the risk. Hostile takeovers have been rare in the software industry, because talented programmers, salespeople, and marketers can leave as soon as their stock options vest. But with a declining economy and a slump in technology purchases, hostile takeovers-seeking market share alone, not talent or intellectual property-may again become popular. And if they do, it was Ellison who led the way.
By turns brilliant and intolerant, inspiring and chilling, energetic and disinterested, Ellison is one of the most intriguing, dominant, and misguided leaders of a major twenty-first-century corporation. He cofounded Oracle, the leader in database software, and has been its chief executive for more than twenty-five years. That gives him the longest tenure at the top for any of the technology revolutionaries, including his onetime peer, Microsoft's Bill Gates, who has stepped away from day-to-day management. Ellison's uninterrupted leadership, coupled with the fact that he still owns nearly one-fourth of Oracle's stock, gives him a tight grip on one of the most powerful forces in the twenty-first century, controlling the means to information at thousands of major corporations. Oracle is, in effect, the largest public company that remains "privately held." Its dominance in the database, which resides at the center of corporations, has been compared to Microsoft's hold on the desktop, although the market share figures for the monopolist Microsoft are much higher. Still, as of year-end 2002, Oracle held 60 percent of the market for the Unix databases most large companies use and 39.4 percent of the overall market, according to market researcher IDC. More than half of the Fortune 100 cited Oracle as the preferred database vendor.
As Oracle enters its second quarter century, its roller-coaster history reads like an ancient tragedy, with a flawed, yet fascinating hero at the center. The company almost ceased to exist in the early 1990s, thanks to superaggressive sales tactics that eventually backfired and left it virtually bankrupt. Ellison was forced to bring in outside executives, consultant Ray Lane and veteran CFO Jeff Henley, and together the three of them repositioned Oracle for its most spectacular growth during the decade of the 1990s. Ellison, whom one business psychologist refers to as the ultimate narcissist, refuses to acknowledge that at least part of Oracle's recent slide in revenue and profitability may be due to disillusion with his leadership-on the part of employees, shareholders, and customers alike. As the singular immanence from which Oracle's culture radiates, he is responsible for the contradictions that exist at the company: its independence, its ability to innovate in the face of wholesale skepticism, its often-callous disregard for the needs of customers, and its brutal competitiveness. When you interview competitors, partners, users, and executives of Oracle, two emotions are invariably expressed: respect for what the company has accomplished technologically, especially with the database, and irritation at how poorly it has handled just about anything that involves human interaction.
It's not clear yet what the fate of Ellison and Oracle will be, because the drama is not complete. In the pages of this book, we see the humble beginnings of the man and his company, watch as they emerge as great powers, then marvel as history takes its revenge upon a leader who won't acknowledge his weaknesses. The book opens with the scene in which Ellison eliminates his second-in-command, Ray Lane, because the CEO feels himself undermined by Lane's growing power. It then returns to Ellison's own roots, taking us back to his rough childhood and his serendipitous journey to Silicon Valley. We see Oracle become the fastest-growing software company in history for a time, even outpacing archrival Microsoft. We watch Oracle run aground and manage to right itself. With the development of the Internet, Ellison moves to a national stage with his drive for a cheaper alternative to the personal computer. We hear from Oracle customers, fed up with the company's disregard of their needs, and from competitors, who are taking advantage of that frustration. The book closes with an examination of Oracle's unique culture, derived from the DNA of its flamboyant chief executive, and a projection of its possible future-with or without Ellison.
Regardless of what happens to Oracle, the journey through its history and psychology is well worth taking, for Ellison is one of those irresistibly compelling characters whom we are unlikely to see again. The technology industry today is outgrowing the individualistic, mercurial CEO whose company solely reflects his grandiose personality. Ellison may be the last of his kind, but he is unforgettable. Long after Oracle's fate is decided, the legend of Ellison and the kingdom he created on the shores of San Francisco Bay will live on.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
KAREN SOUTHWICK, an executive editor at CNET News.com, has been a writer and editor for Forbes ASAP and Upside, as well as metropolitan daily newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. She is also the author of three previous books: Silicon Gold Rush: The Next Generation of High-Tech Stars Rewrites the Rules of Business; The Kingmakers: Venture Capital and the Money Behind the Net; and High Noon: The Inside Story of Scott McNealy and the Rise of Sun Microsystems. She lives in San Francisco.
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