THE RICHEST MAN (OR WOMAN) IN TOWN
[businessweek.com - May 09]
In his new book, The Richest Man in Town, Worth magazine founder W. Randall Jones writes about his search to identify the richest men or women in 100 towns across the U.S. "Every town has a richest person and I wanted to find out who they were. I started out with the largest cities but wanted to make sure that I included as many states as possible," he says. "The people on my list have a net worth ranging from $40 billion down to $100 million. Of course, for most Americans $100 million would go pretty far in my hometown of Carrollton, Ga., or pretty much anywhere in the U.S." What these people all had in common was that all of them plainly enjoy what they do—and that all of them are self-made. "Everyone needs to find their perfect pitch," Jones says. "These people have found it. These are people who have no concept of retirement and, most important, most of them don't believe in leverage. As the richest man in Wichita, Phil Ruffin, puts it: "There are a lot of people who have a couple of billion in assets, but when you see that cash in the bank every morning, then you know you're really rich." Read on to find out who the richest men or women are from Akron, Ohio, to Woodside, Calif.
With his brother Guha, Bala founded the video gaming company Vicarious Visions, which created such games as Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, Spider-Man 3, and Nintendo's Guitar Hero III. The studio has created more than 100 software titles selling more than 20 million units and accounting for over $800 million in retail sales. Bala is the CEO and chief creative officer of Vicarious Visions. He holds degrees in computer science and psychology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
With partner Arthur Blank, Marcus founded Home Depot in 1979 and in 28 years grew it to more than 2,000 stores. In addition to being Atlanta's richest man, with a fortune estimated at around $1.2 billion, he is also the city's greatest philanthropist.
From humble beginnings in his University of Texas dorm room, Dell has grown his eponymous company into the world's second-largest computer maker. He is today worth more than $12.3 billion. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which has an endowment of more than $1 billion, supports education and health initiatives.
Bisciotti founded staffing company Aerotek (now Allegis Group) when he was 23 to provide engineers to the aerospace industry. Today Allegis is the third-largest staffing firm in the U.S. and the sixth-largest in the world. Worth more than $1 billion, he is also the owner and CEO of the Baltimore Ravens football team.
By scaring the bejesus out of people. Since his first book, Carrie, appeared in 1973, King has sold between 300 million and 350 million books and written, under his own name as well as a variety of pen names, more than 70 novels. In addition, his books have spawned dozens of Hollywood hit movies.
Paul, co-founder (with husband Terry) and chairman of Renaissance Learning, started in the basement of her family home, where she developed a quiz-based program to help her own kids learn to love reading. Today, it is the nation's leading reading management and progress program, and its Accelerated Reader program is taught in 67,000 schools around the U.S.
Robert J. Stone
The former college professor was the only person in town who knew how to program computers, so what started out as a favor to help out the local Family & Children's Services Dept. soon blossomed into Systems & Methods Inc. During the 1980s and the '90s, SMI was the largest private issuance provider of food stamps in the nation. Today the privately held SMI is a $40 million business.
Wexner has been the Limited's chairman and CEO since founding the company in 1963. In addition to lingerie manufacturer Victoria's Secret, the company also owns Bath & Body Works and New York department store Henri Bendel. His net worth is estimated to be $1.7 billion.
Starting in 1965, Fred DeLuca turned a $1,000 investment from his friend and partner, Dr. Peter Buck, into Subway, one of the biggest sandwich chains in the world. With more than 31,000 franchisees, DeLuca now has a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion.
Clayton H. Mathile
Mathile was the former owner and CEO of Iams, the premium pet food maker, before selling to Procter & Gamble in 1999 for $2.3 billion. He is passionate about education and has founded the Center for Entrepreneurial Education just outside his hometown.
Charles W. Ergen
Ergen is co-founder, chairman, and CEO of EchoStar Communications and satellite company DISH Network. A keen poker player, Ergen's biggest bet came in 1995 when he launched the first direct-broadcast satellite into orbit on a Chinese rocket. Today, he has an estimated net worth of $3.9 billion.
Fisher Island, Fla., and Troy, Mich.
Desai is the co-founder and CEO of Syntel, a multibillion-dollar information technology company headquarted in Troy, Mich. The Kenyan-born, Indian-educated Desai was one of the early technology outsourcing leaders and divides his time between Troy, Fisher Island, Mumbai, and Syntel's new 1,800-acre campus in Pune, India. Desai has a fortune estimated at $1 billion.
H. Wayne Huizenga
America's most serious serial entrepreneur, the former trash hauler has hauled a $2 billion fortune by building three of the country's biggest companies: Waste Management, Blockbuster, and AutoNation. He is also the owner of the Miami Dolphins.
A triathlon-running, house-renovating, tech-savvy master networker and real estate developer, Hartzler founded Harrisburg Young Professionals. He made his first fortune on the sale of Webclients, which he sold to ValueClick in 2005 for $141 million. He is currently president of WCI Partners, a real estate development company.
The founder and CEO of International Data Group, the largest technology publishing, research, and event management company in the world. Using $5,000 from the sale of his car, he started the company to provide information to the computer industry. Today the company has grown to more than $3 billion in revenue derived from publishing more than 300 magazines, including its flagship, Computerworld.
Activist investor Kerkorian may be 91, but he is showing no signs of slowing down. With a fortune estimated at around $5 billion, Kerkorian got his start in the airline business after World War II. From there he moved into the casino and film businesses, buying and selling MGM Studios three times. His private investment corporation Tracinda is majority owner of the MGM Mirage resort in Las Vegas and has at various times also owned large stakes in General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford.
Hartley D. Peavey
The founder and CEO of Peavey Electronics, Peavey got his start making guitar amplifiers after realizing that he was better at making guitars sound louder than he was at playing them. Today, Peavey has more than 2,000 items in its product line, including microphones, mixers, and computer-controlled audio processors. The company does an estimated $271 million in sales annually.
Schulze started a modest stereo store called Sound of Music in St. Paul, Minn., in 1966, renaming the store Best Buy in 1983. It went public in 1985 and by 1992 was doing $1 billion a year in sales. Today it is the largest specialty retailer of consumer electronics in the U.S., accounting for 21% of the market. His personal net worth is thought to be as much as $2.3 billion.
After being fired from investment bank Salomon Brothers in 1981, Bloomberg used his $10 million severance package to set up his own financial software services company, eventually making him the richest man in New York—as well as one of the richest men in the world. Today closely held Bloomberg has more than 150,000 global subscribers for its eponymous terminals, which rent for $1,500 a month and up, as well as a cable network, radio station, Web site, and magazine. Bloomberg stepped down as CEO of his company when he was elected mayor of New York in 2001, and he is now making a bid for a third four-year term in office. In addition to his mayoral duties, Bloomberg, often cited as a potential presidential candidate, is an active though frequently anonymous philanthropist and has given away hundreds of millions.
Palo Alto, Calif.
Ever heard of Google? This former Stanford student co-founded the Internet search powerhouse with Larry Page in 1998. Today it is considered to be one of the greatest business success stories of all time. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants—both of whom are professors—he is worth around $12 billion. Google has a market cap of $123.1 billion.
Like his future business partner, Sergey Brin, Page was born the son of professors, but it wasn't until the two brainiacs met at Stanford that their fate was decided. In 1998 they founded Google, which would soon become the dominant Internet search engine and make them both billionaires many times over. Google has a market cap of $123.1 billion, and Page has a personal net worth estimated at $12 billion.
The founder and chairman of Nike is an accountant-turned-marketing guru who has created the world's leading supplier of athletic shoes and accessories. A former track star at the University of Oregon, Knight worked with his former coach Bill Bowerman to create a waffle-pattern running shoe tread that would provide better traction. He is today worth in excess of $8 billion.
The founder of Infonautics, Half.com, Turn Tide, and First Round Capital, Josh Kopelman's big windfall came in 2000, when he sold Half.com to eBay for $350 million. He then remained with eBay for three years to run Half.com. During that period he expanded eBay's Media marketplace to almost half a billion dollars in annual sales. He has since founded First Round Capital, a seed-stage venture capital fund, and writes a tech blog called Red Eye VC.
The founder of McAfee Software, the largest anti-virus software company in the world, John McAfee sold the company in 1999 and now spends his time flying air trikes—contraptions that look like motorcycles with wings. In addition to writing several books on yoga, he has also built a new town in New Mexico, complete with a coffee shop and movie theater.
John McAfee (born September 18, 1945) is a computer programmer and founder of McAfee. He was one of the first people to design anti-virus software and to develop a virus scanner. He was born in England and raised in Salem, Virginia. He received his bachelor's degree in mathematics from Roanoke College in 1967, and he received an honorary doctorate from Roanoke College in 2008.
John was employed as a programmer by NASA's Institute for Space Studies in New York City from 1968 to 1970. From there he went to Univac as a software designer and later to Xerox as an Operating System architect. In 1978 he joined Computer Sciences Corporation as a software consultant. Later, while employed by Lockheed in the 1980s, McAfee received a copy of the Pakistani Brain computer virus and began developing software to combat viruses. He was the first to distribute anti-virus software using the shareware business model. In 1989, he quit Lockheed and began working full time at his anti-virus company McAfee Associates, which he initially operated from his home in Santa Clara, California.
This company later became Network Associates, a name it retained for seven years until it was renamed McAfee, which remains today as one of the largest anti-virus companies in the world. John McAfee teaches yoga and has written several books about yoga.
Other business ventures that he founded included Tribal Voice, which developed one of the first instant messaging programs, PowWow. [Wikipedia]
Brown University and Harvard B-school grad Nelson is the founder and CEO of Providence Equity Partners, the private equity firm that currently owns movie studio MGM, sports channels Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, and online streaming video-on-demand service Hulu. He recently completed the largest leveraged buyout in history, purchasing Bell Canada for $50 billion. He also made huge profits selling off Western Wireless (now AllTel) and Voice Stream Wireless, which became T-Mobile.
(l-r) Creamer, Salem and Nelson
INSIDE A RECORD-BREAKING $51 BILLION BUYOUT
[money.cnn.com - May 08]
Bagging Bell Canada put Providence Equity Partners into the top tier of private money firms. Now Jonathan Nelson has to keep it there.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Alarms sounded all over Wall Street in March of last year when word leaked that BCE, parent of phone giant Bell Canada, was in buyout talks with Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. The news that such a rich prize - BCE had a market cap of $25 billion - was in play set KKR competitors like Blackstone, Cerberus, and Carlyle scrambling to get in on the action.
Watching this drama unfold with a measure of both confidence and concern was Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Providence Equity Partners, a smaller and considerably less flashy firm based, yes, in poor little Rhode Island's capital. Providence had been quietly courting BCE, paying friendly visits to the management team since 2004. (Providence had put money into MetroNet, a Bell Canada rival, and had seen firsthand how dominant the larger firm was.) Providence also knew that local law required the company to be majority-held by Canadians, and in 2006 it had started exploring a BCE buyout with the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan - a longtime Providence investor and also BCE's largest shareholder. The fact that KKR was now in the hunt did not surprise Nelson - naturally BCE was going to shop itself to drive up the price. But he immediately got on the phone with Jim Leech, the head of Ontario Teachers', to review their strategy. "Of course we were concerned," he tells Fortune, in a rare interview. "But we had spent two years studying the company, we had the ideal partner in Teachers', we had three times before invested in a national phone company, and our banks were underwriting all the debt financing. For these reasons we believed that we should come out on top."
Sure enough, most of the other major equity shops soon backed away when they were unable to secure sufficient Canadian backing. And in late June of last year BCE agreed to be acquired by Providence, Ontario Teachers', and a third partner, Madison Dearborn, for a record-setting $33 billion, or $48.5 billion including debt. The decline in the U.S. dollar has raised the total to $51.5 billion (as of May 8).
The deal was a triumph. Not only had Providence pulled off what would be the biggest leveraged buyout in history, it had outmaneuvered KKR to boot. The coup validated Nelson's strategy of focusing on media and communications and cultivating deep, long-term relationships with the industry's key players. And it launched Providence into the top tier of private equity firms.
But don't schedule the victory parade just yet. Just as Providence snagged its prize, the credit markets started to unravel. With the deal slogging through a regulatory review, Providence's partners have had to reassure investors that their newly cautious lenders, folks like Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and RBS, will honor commitments to finance the huge buyout (The New York Times reported Monday, after press time, that the Wall Street banks are seeking new loan terms, possibly imperiling the deal).
Meanwhile Nelson has his own headaches. Providence had to sue one of its lenders, Wachovia, to ensure financing of its $1 billion acquisition of 56 television stations from Clear Channel Communications. And he has been working overtime on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the movie studio that Providence bought in 2005 with Sony, Comcast, and other partners. MGM has missed financial targets, struggled to find a winning strategy, and released bomb after bomb, a streak that could well continue with the forthcoming Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise plays an eye-patch-wearing Nazi.
So Jonathan Nelson finds himself at a crossroads. His firm has morphed from boutique to megafund: It now ranks No. 9 on Fortune's private-money power list, ahead of well-known names like Cerberus and Thomas H. Lee. And it's a major player in the media business, with a portfolio of 41 companies, including MGM, television network Univision, and several cable TV and wireless phone companies. Nelson, 51, a mild-mannered man who has enjoyed working in relative obscurity far from the bustle of Wall Street, concedes that he will no longer be able to maintain the low profile and underdog status that was a competitive advantage for so many years. Moreover, Providence's strong track record and mega-investment pool (at $12 billion, its newest fund is three times larger than the previous one) brings intense scrutiny and outsized expectations. Will Nelson thrive under this unaccustomed pressure? One friend, media billionaire (and Univision chairman) Haim Saban, thinks the answer is yes. Don't be fooled by his "gentle, soft-spoken" style, says Saban. "This is a guy who goes helicopter skiing in Greenland, who once dove under his boat because a propeller got caught in seaweed. This is a guy who enjoys a real challenge."
An Unexpected Path
You could call Jonathan M. Nelson the accidental investment banker. He didn't plan on becoming a master of the universe à la KKR's Henry Kravis or Blackstone's Steve Schwarzman. In fact, he says proudly, he didn't plan to do much of anything at all. "You can't at the outset connect the dots," Nelson told a group of students and parents at a Brown University parents' weekend last year. "Life does not and should not work that way." This surely dismayed some parents, who probably had hoped a successful financier would have more practical advice for the young Ivy Leaguers. But the random path certainly worked for him.
The son of an orthodontist, Nelson grew up comfortably middle class in Providence. When it came time for college, he didn't go far, choosing Brown, where he was Mr. Liberal Arts, supplementing his economics studies with music courses and a stint at a local radio station as a jazz deejay. After graduating in 1977, he stumbled into a job at Wellman, a Boston-based specialty-chemical maker. A friend who worked there set him up on a job interview - Nelson claims he just went to practice his interview skills - and he ended up spending about three years helping manage the company's Asian operations.
He left Wellman, lived in Europe for a year, and decided to go back to school. After earning an MBA at Harvard in 1983, Nelson landed at a private equity firm called Narragansett Capital, where his first deal was having Narragansett buy his former employer, Wellman. Founder Bud Wellman was ready to cash out, and the deal was a huge success: Narragansett made 20 times its original investment in about three years.
After several years at Narragansett, during which he focused on local media companies, Nelson decided to strike out on his own - but not too far, of course. In 1991 he and a few Narragansett pals, including Glenn Creamer, formed Providence with a plan to concentrate on telephone and cable companies, which were fragmented at the time and just starting to consolidate.
It was a tough time to raise money. The U.S. economy was in the tank, and while Creamer and Nelson had a strong track record at Narragansett, they nonetheless were asking investors to take a risk on a specialized firm. Most pension funds and institutions were more comfortable with big generalist outfits with diverse portfolios. But the ones that took a chance on Providence - including Ontario Teachers' and Calpers - were well rewarded. Providence would not provide the data and won't comment on returns. But according to documents seen by Fortune, its first four funds notched annual returns of 47%, 111%, 21%, and 56%, respectively, before fees (the typical Providence fund lasts about five years). One fund-of-funds manager says these results put Providence in the top decile of private-money players. "They have some of the best returns of any of the megafunds," this manager says. "It's a damn fine performance."
In its earliest days Providence mostly provided growth capital to growing businesses such as upstart cellular company Western Wireless or Brooks Fiber, a local phone company trying to take on the monopoly operators. Those young companies certainly enriched Providence. For example, it put $63 million into VoiceStream starting in 1992 and reaped more than ten times that amount when Deutsche Telekom bought the company in 2000. But the burgeoning firms also provided inspiration. Watching entrepreneurs like Western Wireless CEO John Stanton as they strove to build a business spurred Nelson and his partners to think about themselves as more than mere financiers. "It isn't just about money; it is about creating an enduring franchise," says Creamer earnestly, as we sit in Providence's modest offices, adorned with nautical paintings, in a downtown high-rise. "We think we've done that."
A key part of building that franchise has been maintaining an atmosphere of collegiality. Indeed, politeness seems to be a core value. Providence is only 180 miles from New York City, but it is light-years from the rough-and-tumble mentality of most Wall Street trading floors. Paul Salem, a senior managing director who joined the firm in 1992, tells the story of a CEO who was rude on the phone to one of the office assistants. "That's not a guy we want to do business with," Salem says.
But as the firm grows - it now employs 65 investment professionals in offices in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London, New Delhi, and of course Providence - Nelson frets openly about maintaining the more-than-moneymen culture he's tried to achieve. During our first meeting, at Providence's New York City offices in Lever House on Park Avenue, the word "institution" keeps coming up. So I ask if he'd be melancholy if, say, he came back 20 years after retirement and found Providence had become a big, faceless institution like a Goldman Sachs or a J.P. Morgan Chase. He thinks for a moment and says, "If I stopped someone in the hallway to ask directions and the person had no idea about my prior role at the firm but was polite and helped me out, I'd say, 'I am absolutely okay with this.'"
Providence's clients certainly seem to be okay with the firm's low-key vibe - indeed, it's something of a competitive advantage. "Those of us in regular business tend to think of private equity as having the mentality, 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine,'" says Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony, which partnered with Providence in the MGM buyout. "The thing about Jonathan is that he maintains relationships, and that's what generates a level of trust for him that others don't enjoy."
Nelson's self-effacing style has won him friendships with media elite such as Stringer and News Corp.'s Peter Chernin. "Jonathan is somebody who is comfortable in his skin," says Dick Parsons, chairman of Time Warner, Fortune's parent. "He doesn't have that mogul or movie star gene that drives him to be the show, the story, the centerpiece." That probably is a competitive advantage too. "These big egos are not looking to partner with another big ego," says James B. Lee Jr., vice chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase. "They are looking to partner with someone who will work well with them." Indeed, Nelson is one of the few outside bankers invited to mingle with the media heavyweights at Allen & Co.'s annual retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho. Of course, controlling companies with combined annual revenue of $55 billion, Providence is arguably as significant a presence on the media landscape as, say, Time Warner or Viacom.
He's a familiar figure in that rarefied orbit, but Nelson is surprisingly anonymous in his hometown; he says he has never once been interviewed by the city's paper, the Providence Journal. "In Providence, among people who follow business, everybody of course knows about the firm and its success and that he's the top guy there, but that's about it," says Ralph Wales, headmaster of the Gordon School, a private school Nelson attended. "Jonathan is a very private man." He declines, for example, to talk about a particularly difficult period in his life when his first wife died and he became the primary caregiver for his three young daughters (he remarried in 2004).
That's not to say Nelson doesn't have any ego, especially where his firm's track record is concerned. "He's not an ostentatious guy who likes having his name on the front page of newspapers," says an executive who knows Nelson well. "But Jonathan flies in a private jet, and he wants you to write an article that says he's the smartest media and telecom investor in the world." Is he? "He's pretty darn good," the executive says.
And he's raising his profile in his hometown. In 2010, Brown University will open the $45 million Jonathan M. Nelson Fitness Center. Nelson, now a Brown trustee (are you surprised?), donated the lead gift for the facility. Nelson, who says he might have been a carpenter or architect if he hadn't become a media investor, also is playing a hands-on role in its design. "This whole area needs to be improved," he says. It is a warm afternoon in Providence, and we are standing in a parking lot in front of the existing athletic complex, which consists of personality-free concrete buildings. "I am confident that you'll come back here and smile," he says. A fitness buff who works out five days a week, Nelson clearly believes a healthy body and a healthy mind go together: Before the Brown fitness center, he helped the Gordon School build a new gymnasium.
Lately, Nelson may have moments when he wishes he'd become a carpenter. While he insists he loves the job, especially the stimulation he gets from working with smart colleagues, he also acknowledges that as Providence Equity has grown, his gig has become much tougher, the problems more public.
Take the fight with Wachovia. Providence prides itself on maintaining friendly relationships with its partners, so insiders were surprised when Wachovia sued Providence without warning. Providence had renegotiated the price of its Clear Channel television acquisition, and the bank said the price reduction violated the terms of the lending agreement. Providence countersued. The parties eventually dropped the suits and the financing went through, but it seems unlikely that Providence will do business with Wachovia again. "There were three banks involved, and two of them handled this difficult situation very well," Nelson says plainly. "We appreciate that, and we will remember their behavior."
Similarly, three of the four lenders backing the BCE buyout also are trying to renegotiate loans to the parties seeking to buy Clear Channel's radio stations; some analysts suspect the banks might try a similar tactic with the BCE deal. "We are engaging with the company and the banks and expect everyone will honor their commitments," Nelson says.
While the credit crisis is taking a toll, Providence isn't only an LBO shop, and it doesn't rely on debt markets for all its investments. It recently put $100 million into Hulu, the web-video joint venture of News Corp. and GE's NBC Universal. It is pushing deeper into Internet investing, and many of its international investments involve companies seeking growth capital, not buyouts. Indian wireless operator Idea Cellular, for example, sold a 16% stake to Providence last year for $400 million. Neither Hulu nor Idea really needed Providence's money; what the companies sought was external valuation of their business, as well as the expertise and cachet that Providence brings. "It means a lot when someone of Jonathan's stature puts his firm's money into Hulu," says Jason Kilar, CEO of the venture.
Nelson says that the tough times in the markets will not lead him to alter his basic strategy. Providence certainly will do more big deals; after all, it has $12 billion to put to work. But while some peers look for distressed companies to bail out or bad debt to buy, Nelson plans to stick with what he knows best. Asked how he plans to weather the economic slowdown, for example, he trumpets the virtues of BCE: "Bell Canada looks like a great business to us, in part as a defensive position in a possible economic downturn," he says. "People don't shut their phones off." Similarly, Providence has recently been pouring money into one of its original businesses, cable television, albeit in places such as Ukraine. It may not sound all that glamorous, but it makes perfect sense for a guy who built a private equity powerhouse by sticking with what he knows.
The Bronx-born billionaire founder of Oracle, a major enterprise software company, and is reputedly the fourth-richest man in the world. The thrice-divorced Ellison has all the billionaire toys: the yacht, the $200 million Japanese mansion complete with a reproduction 17th century Kyoto teahouse. He is also a passionate sailor and is the second-biggest backer of BMW Oracle Racing in the 2007 America's Cup bid.
Being Larry Ellison
[Business Life - Jul./Aug.01]
In a phone interview the week before the shoot, Ellison was as upbeat as ever. Asked what advice he had for startups going through their first market downturn, he said, "You can't worry about it, you can't panic when you look at the stock market's decline, or you get frozen like a deer in the headlights. All you can do is all you can do." Ellison talks at least twice as fast as the average intelligent person, and his sentences tend to pile up, words bumping into each other as they race out of his mouth. "If your cash is about to run out you have to cut your cash flow. CEOs have to make those decisions and live with them however painful they might be. You have to act and act now, and act in the best interests of the company as a whole, even if that means that some people in the company who are your friends have to work somewhere else."
Ellison is known as a ruthless businessman, firing senior executives days before the last of their stock options is due to mature and, most notably, denigrating Oracle's chief rival Microsoft at every opportunity. Last June, the U.S. press had a field day when it was discovered that Oracle had paid private investigators to snoop through the trash of a supposedly independent research group it suspected of being funded by Microsoft during the antitrust trial. "It's absolutely true we set out to expose Microsoft's covert activities," he said in a press conference. "I feel very good about what we did.… Maybe our investigation organization may have done things unsavory, but it's not illegal. We got the truth out." [...]
Ellison has said on several occasions that he reached where he is today by doing the opposite of what was expected of him. "The most important aspect of my personality, as far as determining my success goes, has been my questioning conventional wisdom, doubting the experts and questioning authority," he said in 1997. "While that can be very painful in relationships with your parents and teachers, it's enormously useful in life." [...]
Ellison deserves most of the credit for the success. But not all. One of his strengths, says Don Lucas, a venture capitalist and Oracle boardmember who has known Ellison since 1979, is that he "delegates almost totally." [...]
True, Ellison does leap at any opportunity to lambast Microsoft. Before the garbage incident, he was one of the rare Silicon Valley CEOs brave enough to testify personally in Microsoft's antitrust trial. He told the U.S. Senate that "consumers are free to choose a Microsoft PC from Dell, a Microsoft PC from Compaq, a Microsoft PC from Gateway...You get the point. Feels to me a little like a Soviet supermarket."
There is another way of looking at his Microsoft obsession. All competition, he has said previously, is just as much about self-exploration as it is about winning: "There's a wonderful saying that's dead wrong. ‘Why did you climb the mountain?' ‘I climbed the mountain because it was there.' That's utter nonsense…You climbed the mountain because you were there, and you were curious if you could do it. You wondered what it would be like." When I asked him if he would be satisfied to see Microsoft's possible punishment for its monopolistic crimes by being broken up into separate companies, he sputtered, "Absolutely not! I don't feel good about Microsoft passing us on the way down. We'd like to pass them on the way up." [...]
There's one more arena that Ellison wants to test himself in: biotechnology. At some point, he says, he will probably retire from Oracle and devote himself full time to Quark Biotechnology Inc., a gene-based drug developer focusing on cancer research, whose board he chairs. This is not a whim. Ellison has been interested in the life sciences for years: in addition to a longtime investment in SuperGen, a developer focusing on drugs for cancer and blood cell disorders, he took a two-week holiday to work in the molecular biology lab of his friend Josh Lederberg, a Nobel laureate. Through the $250 million Ellison Medical Foundation he established in 1997, he has already funded numerous studies into age-related diseases and disabilities; last year the EMF added infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis to its focus.
Typically, the U.S. media has been cynical about Ellison's motives for anti-aging research. But "I've never gotten the impression that Larry's interest is in prolonging his own life, rather than in understanding the biological process of aging and improving the world's quality of life," says Richard Sprott, the foundation's executive director. [...]
That is the essence of Larry Ellison, the contradiction that fuels so much of his critics' ire. When he says that he prefers "strategic" philanthropy, the media look at his total wealth and call him parsimonious. But perhaps it's just that like most people, whether billionaires or janitors, he prefers not to be told how to spend his money. He is generous to a fault with friends and family, reportedly buying a house for one ex-wife's ailing parents. When an Acura NSX zooms past you in Silicon Valley, there's a good chance it was paid for by Ellison; he buys several each year as gifts. His personal pilot drives one of the $100,000 cars.
But his friends have learned to keep quiet. Few were willing for their compliments to be on the record, fearing like Ray Lane that they would be twisted out of context. Even Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who Ellison refers to frequently — and touchingly — as his "best friend" and "idol," did not respond to requests for comment.
A clue to Ellison's complicated worldview can be found in his love for the 1984 movie The Natural, in which a middle-aged baseball player (Robert Redford) comes out of nowhere to take a 1930s team to the championship. "It's the one movie I watch over and over. It's an amazing combination of idealism confronted with reality," he says. That theme can be found in another of his favorite films, the Dian Fossey biopic Gorillas in the Mist. (He is also a longtime boardmember of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.) [...]
In spite of his dedication to flouting convention, Ellison admits to at least one universal sentiment. When I jokingly asked him if he would agree with Machiavelli that it is better for a leader to be feared than loved, he answers, "Oh no, it's much better to be loved than feared. Being feared is terrible. Dentists are feared. Everyone, everyone wants to be loved. We kid ourselves and pretend that we don't, but we all do." That can be a problem for a CEO, or, say, a world leader like Bill Clinton, I answered. He laughed: "Well, you can't be prevented from seeking love, but you can be carried away by that, by wanting to be liked and loved by too many people."
Ellison, it is safe to say, will never sacrifice who he is — mercurial, enthusiastic, risk-taking, and occasionally tyrannical — in that pursuit.
What the Hell is Cloud Computing?
Larry Ellison's Fake Blog
Q + A with Larry Ellison