By Forbes Magazine, 8/11/2006
For 30 years all of Oracle Corp., maker of the database software that drives thousands of big businesses around the world, has revolved around its founder. Larry Ellison owns a 23% stake worth $18 billion, and he rarely sells.
He tweaks Oracle’s print ads; he fiddles with its press releases; he peppers techies with arcane questions. “I’ve run engineering since Day One, and I still run engineering,” he says. But Ellison is turning 62 on August 17. Isn’t it about time he identified a successor? Bill Gates, 11 years younger, managed to do that.
A litany of would-be heirs to Ellison have come and gone, forced out or departing at will when they clashed with the boss or stepped too far into his spotlight. His two most senior aides are ill suited to the job: the mysterious Safra Catz and the articulate glad-hander Charles Phillips.
“I don’t know who would take over if something happened to Larry. I don’t want the job,” Catz, 43, tells Forbes in a rare interview. As co-president and chief financial officer, she is Ellison’s enforcer and chief of staff.
“Without him, Oracle wouldn’t be the same.” (“She’s seen what fame and fortune bring, and she’s not impressed,” Ellison says mordantly.)
Phillips, 46, co-president and a former Marine Corps captain who came to Ellison’s attention in the early 1990s when he recommended Oracle stock as an analyst at Morgan Stanley, adds: “Larry will be here forever. We don’t discuss succession. That’s not my job.”
But it is the job of the board, and it, too, has failed to define Oracle After Larry. “There is no successor to Larry, no heir apparent,” says board Chairman Jeffrey Henley, who ran finance from 1991 to 2004. “We discuss the subject, but there is no perfect plan. Larry still wants total control.”
It’s a brazen attitude in this Sarbox era of abundant regulatory second-guessing and crackdowns on slack corporate governance. And it is precisely the way Ellison wants it. “It is silly to think you can groom someone. Jack Welch didn’t have a successor. If you want to put me in his league, by all means, guilty as charged,” he says.
That isn’t quite true: At General Electric, Welch went to elaborate lengths over six years to groom a successor from a handful of clear finalists. And in a recent BusinessWeek column the star manager criticizes complacent boards for ignoring the succession issue.
Corporate governance finger-wagger Nell Minow of the Corporate Library concurs. “Founders don’t like distinguishing themselves from the company. Competition and self-confidence often get in the way of succession planning, but shareholders deserve more.” Her group gives Oracle a grade of “D” for governance.
Ellison eschews succession in favor of a trusted staff that faithfully takes his lead. He spends much of his time away from Oracle: He doesn’t even have his own office at the headquarters in Redwood City, Calif.; Catz occupies it.
“Life is short. I’m not going to spend every minute of it with Oracle,” he says. He puts in scant time with customers. “Just not interested,” he says, leaving that role to the smooth-talking Phillips.
This summer Ellison is spending three weeks sailing off the coast of Spain to qualify for the June 2007 America’s Cup yacht race, his second. He is tweaking the design for his next yacht, a 250-footer that will be cozier than his other one, the 454-foot Rising Sun.
He also is finishing up a Japanese-village-style estate on 40 acres in Woodside, Calif., where he lives with his fourth wife. (Two grown children from an earlier marriage are not in the business.)
“Some people say Larry is lazy,” says director Donald Lucas, who joined the board when Oracle had 11 employees. “But really he empowers the people around him by delegating. And if he nominated a successor, everyone would be gunning for that person.”
Yet Oracle needs to secure its future — especially now, as old-guard software vendors get undercut by a raft of cheap newcomers in the open-source movement. For Oracle the threat comes from such outfits as MySQL and Ingres. DaimlerChrysler, Siemens and UPS use MySQL, spending (so says MySQL) one-tenth of what they would have spent on the Oracle alternative.
“Innovative companies aren’t buying Oracle’s stuff. They’re flocking to open source because it is better and cheaper,” says MySQL Chief Executive Marten Mickos.
The threat explains Oracle’s tepid valuation on Wall Street. At $15, its shares go for 19 times trailing earnings, scarcely better than the market’s 16. Rival SAP enjoys a price/earnings ratio of 27. Its shares have barely budged in the past three years, notwithstanding that earnings per share have increased by 49%.
“Wall Street is often the last to know,” says Ellison, who can be quick to lecture. He predicts earnings growth of 20% a year for the rest of the decade.
That goal could prove to be elusive, for Ellison’s main database business, still nearly two-thirds of revenue, grows only 3% a year, according to Citigroup. Just about every big company that needs a database has one.
“We’ve already got what we want,” says Nationwide Insurance Vice President Richard Wohleber. Michael Vincent of Dutch bank ING adds: “If anything, our spending will decrease.”
To offset that inevitable slowdown in new database sales, Ellison has been betting big on applications software. Databases store the bits of a company’s information, everything from auto part inventory levels to personnel records.
Applications organize, present and track that data, offering up insights like which customers are the most profitable ones and which salespeople land the best deals.
Oracle spent a decade trying to build the applications business in-house, to no avail; its homegrown products were user-unfriendly and riddled with bugs.
Yet Ellison personally has invested in two applications firms that have fared far better. Three years ago he reversed course and embarked on a shopping spree. It has been a big spree, totaling $19 billion and delivering 21 software companies, $4.6 billion in extra annual revenue and 18,000 additional employees. (Some 7,000 were canned, and the Oracle payroll now is at 56,000, up 34% from 2002.)
Among his prizes is PeopleSoft, a vendor of software to run personnel departments, which was won in a hostile $11 billion takeover.
When Ellison made a move on PeopleSoft, it was run by one of his myriad protégés-turned-castoffs, Craig Conway. In a similar vein was Siebel Systems, founded and run by another Oracle alum, Thomas Siebel. Siebel software helps salespeople sell.
Competitors paint Ellison’s buyout binge as a capitulation. “This is a desperate act. In the Wild West, when you’re riding a dying horse, you get off and shoot it. In the software industry, you tie it to another dead horse and see if it’ll go anywhere,” says Shai Agassi, president of SAP.
Ellison counters that SAP moves too slowly to update for the Internet age and will suffer for it. “The only thing more risky than moving to the next generation of technology is not moving to the next generation,” he says. “So we’ll see who’s taking the risk and who isn’t.”
Now Ellison must make these pieces of software work together. Oracle has two versions of financial-tracking software, three sets of code for customer data and dozens of niche products. Ellison vows to continue investing in older versions of programs Oracle has acquired, even as engineers work on a grand unified design dubbed Fusion. It may be ready by the end of 2008.
For every dollar corporate customers spend on new software, they spend $6 implementing it and getting it to talk to other programs. Ellison says Fusion can greatly reduce this pain.