Larry Ellison started the high-flying tech company Oracle with $1,200 in 1977 and turned it into a billion-dollar Silicon Valley giant. If Bill Gates is the tech world's nerd king, Ellison is its Warren Beatty: racing yachts, buying jets, and romancing beautiful women. His rise to fame and fortune is a tale of entrepreneurial brilliance, ruthless tactics, and a constant stream of half-truths and outright fabrications for which the man and his company are notorious.
Investigative reporter Mike Wilson, with access to Ellison himself and more than 125 of his friends, enemies, and former Oracle employees, has created an eye-opening, utterly fascinating portrayal of a Silicon Valley success story ... filled with the stuff that dreams and cultural icons are made of.
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About the Author
Mike Wilson is an editor at the St. Petersburg Times and the author of the acclaimed Right on the Edge of Crazy: On Tour with the U.S. Ski Team. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Read an Excerpt
LARRY ELLISON WALKED DOWN THE LONG HALLWAY, HIS SNEAKERS chirping quietly as he approached the living room. The hallway was narrower at his end than at mine, so Ellison seemed to grow larger as he moved toward me, an optical illusion that would have pleased him. He wore white gym shorts and a white T-shirt, and his youthful face was still glowing red from his afternoon workout.
I had arrived thirty minutes earlier, at the appointed time. Klaus, a member of Ellison's domestic staff, had ushered me inside, and Maria, the maid, had given me a soft drink.
Hi, sorry I'm late, Ellison said, extending an outsize hand. Embroidered onto his shirt was the word SAYONARA, the name of his yacht. His mouth was saying hello, but his shirt was saying goodbye. The contradiction seemed appropriate: As the entire world of high technology knew, Larry Ellison was a hard man to pin down.
We chatted for a moment. Then sayonara he excused himself and disappeared up the spiral stairway to take a shower.
After he had rotated out of sight, I had a few more minutes to look around. Standing in the vast living room of Ellison's San Francisco home was like being transported into the pages of Architectural Digest. A couple of black lacquer stereo speakers stood like monoliths near the fireplace, a Steinway grand piano stood three-legged in the corner, and on the coffee table a pair of wire-frame glasses lay on top of a stack of art history books. The house had many other impressive features that could not be seen from the living room. A computer in the closet controlled more than five thousand lights, all of which could be dimmed or brightened according to the time of day or Ellison's mood.In the entertainment area an eight-thousand-dollar video projector produced a razor-sharp picture even when the room was not fully darkened. (Someone had told me that NASA used the same kind of projector at Mission Control.) The house also had a courtyard patio made of bronze tiles, a unique handmade snooker table in the game room, and two shiny stainless steel garage doors that looked great except that they showed fingerprints.
Probably the most remarkable thing about the house was the view -- the best view money can buy -- the designer had told me. I couldn't quarrel. Through the broad living-room windows I could see Alcatraz Island, Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge -- the great, misty San Francisco panorama.
And this was just Ellison's entertainment house, his -- pied-`-terre, -- the home where he gave parties and did business whenever he happened to be in the city. His main residence, a ten-thousand square-foot Japanese-style house with a large garden and an authentic teahouse, was down the peninsula in Atherton. And he was currently building a new Japanese estate on twenty-three acres in Woodside, a wooded village in the Silicon Valley hills. The projected cost: forty million dollars.
He could afford it. Only days before this interview, my first with Ellison, Forbes magazine had estimated his net worth at six billion dollars. According to the magazine, that made Ellison the fifth-richest person in the United States. Some of the people on the Forbes 400 didn't like having their fortunes discussed publicly; as I was about to see, Ellison was not one of them. He enjoyed the attention.
Soon he reappeared, wet-headed from the shower and dressed casually in slacks and a black, short-sleeve polo shirt. He led me to a table in the far corner of the room and offered me a seat. The table had place settings for two. After a moment the staff arrived with plates of fresh greens, the first course of what turned out to be a three-course lunch. Ellison, a man of legendary appetites, drank about a quart of carrot juice with his meal.
I began by asking him to talk about his childhood in Chicago. He did, briefly. Then seamlessly and effortlessly he segued into a speech about Bill Clinton's failed attempt several years earlier to remake the American health care system. Ellison believed that the President should have left health care alone and focused on education.
I have added punctuation to make the following paragraph readable, but when Larry Ellison was speaking, there were no commas or hyphens. He talked so fast that he mutilated some sentences and even some words. For example, when he said the word -- graduating, -- it sounded like gradjing. He ate - uate.
People get on airplanes all over the world and fly to the United States to get health care. And we have an educational system that would be an embarrassment to a third world country, he said, overstating the case, as he often did. No one flies here to send their kids to the seventh- and eighth-grade public schools in San Francisco or New York City or Chicago. I just think Bill Clinton was wrong.... First of all, health care is not a government monopoly. Education is. So government taking responsibility for fixing this problem is absolutely appropriate. (Government taking responsibility for fixing health care, which isn't broken.) People get on airplanes and fly here. Don't get me wrong. I think that there are access problems with our health care system. The very poor can't get at it. Interestingly enough, one of the big groups who don't get to have health care are people just graduating -- gradjing -- from college.... So a lot of these statistics can be very misleading. Some of the people who don't have access really are not at risk. There are others -- the very poor -- who really are at risk, and they don't have access, so we have to do something about that. But I don't think you revamp the entire health care system, which delivers incredible quality health care, the best health care in the world, you don't revamp that system of private-public cooperation that exists right now and turn it into a public monopoly.
Around the time of my interview with Ellison the business pages were full of articles about search engines, computer programs designed to help people find information on the World Wide Web. That was the way Ellison's mind worked. He was like a search engine gone haywire. If you asked him for information about Chicago in the 1950s, he told you about the Clinton presidency.
I tried again. I asked Ellison how he had seen his adult life when he was a kid. What had he thought was going to happen to him?
You mean, did I anticipate being the fifth-wealthiest person in the United States in 1996? No, he said. I mean, this is all kind of surreal. I don't even believe it now. Not only did I not believe it when I was fourteen, but when I look around, I say, this must be something out of a dream. Coming from almost anyone else, the phrase -- something out of a dream -- would have sounded hackneyed, but Ellison, an utterly self-made man, meant it. A dozen years after he accumulated his first million, his good fortune still amazed him.
Then the conversation shifted again, and Ellison began to talk about some of the bizarre and farfetched stories that had been published about him. For example, the Wall Street Journal once said that he used to sign his checks in green because green was the color of money. Ridiculous, he said: My favorite color happens to be green, but not because it's the color of money. He also mentioned a 1991 article in a technology industry magazine called Upside that talked about the way Ellison had bought this very house. As Ellison remembered the article, it said he and his then girlfriend drove past the house at 2:00 A.M. and liked it. Ellison woke up the owner, bought the house for four million dollars in cash (he had the money in the trunk), then took his girlfriend inside and had sex with her.
Five years after the article appeared, Ellison was still astonished that such an outlandish story had been published. Four million dollars for sex? he said. I mean, excuse me? He said he bought the house from the estate of the owners, who were dead at the time.
Later I looked up the Upside magazine article. The actual anecdote wasn't half as juicy as the one Ellison had told me. It said Ellison and his girlfriend were driving home from the symphony when they saw the house. [He] rang the doorbell and offered to write a check on the spot. The owner, in his bathrobe, was shocked and initially refused, but over the ensuing months Ellison managed to buy the house anyway. Upside attributed the story to anonymous sources, who said they'd heard it from Ellison. There was no mention in the article of wads of cash and not a whisper of celebratory sex.
This was classic Larry Ellison: He had embellished the story even while denying it. If he was going to be the subject of a rumor, then by God, he wanted it to be an interesting one. The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison. Copyright © by Mike Wilson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.