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Wednesday, November 26, 2014         

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Ellison lives for his whims and his cash and makes no secret of it

By David Streitfeld

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It is good to be the king. It is even better to be Larry Ellison.

Most of us spend much of our lives thinking that we should do the right thing, or worrying that we didn't do the right thing, or trying at long last to finally do the right thing. Ellison, the fifth-richest person in the world and the chief executive with the highest total compensation in 2013, appears burdened by no such concerns.

In a Silicon Valley filled with entrepreneurs who insist that they rise with the dawn solely to help humanity, he makes clear that he is out for himself. It's refreshing, kind of.

In September the America's Cup yacht race took place in San Francisco. This was Ellison's baby. He was the defending champion as well as the promoter who had sold the event to the city. In a community worried that it might be catering too much to its newly minted billionaires, a favorable reception was no sure thing. The cup is only for the super-rich. Mounting a viable entry costs upward of $100 million. It was publicity the city didn't need.

September also brought Oracle OpenWorld, the conference devoted to Ellison's other baby, Oracle Corp., the source of his $50 billion fortune. The high point was to have been Ellison rallying the faithful in San Francisco's convention center with an afternoon keynote. Except that a crucial race was going on.

Silicon Valley is the land of those who style themselves as rule breakers, but few would be so bold as to blow off thousands of paying customers of their core business so they could indulge a hobby. For one thing, the blowback from social media would be huge and unpleasant.

Ellison, 69, does not seem to have given it a second thought. Forty-five minutes after his speech was scheduled to begin, the faithful were told to forget it: Ellison does what he wants, and he wants to be out on a boat in the bay, watching that $100 million investment pay off in a come-from-behind victory.

There was some grumbling but much more shrugging. What would you expect from a guy who in the early 1990s dated three Oracle employees at the same time when the right thing would have been to date none?

(Ellison, who bought 98 percent of Lanai in 2012 and local carrier Island Air in 2013, said last month that he would like to hold the 2017 America's Cup in Honolulu.)

Something else Ellison wants to do is get paid a lot. His compensation last year, according to the Equilar 100 CEO Pay Study, was $78.4 million, most of it in stock option awards. The total figure is more than double that of the second-ranked executive, Robert A. Iger of Disney, and triple that of the third-place finisher, Rupert Murdoch, no slouches themselves at bringing home the bucks.

Ellison's cumulative pay for the eight years that Equilar, an executive compensation data firm, has been conducting the study was $582 million, almost $83 million more than the runner-up, Tim Cook of Apple. Through a spokeswoman, Ellison declined to comment about his pay or anything else.

Shareholders of Oracle, perhaps noticing that its stock performance has been relatively unimpressive, are finally getting grumpy. They voted against Ellison's pay package a few weeks after his team triumphed again in the America's Cup.

It was the second consecutive year shareholders rebelled. But because the resolution was nonbinding, it made no difference. The most optimistic thing Michael Pryce-Jones of CtW Investment Group, which advises union pension plans on corporate governance and led the anti-Ellison rebellion, could think of to say was this: "Governance issues snowball." Compensation of $78.4 million is hard to visualize. Better to think of it as $37,692.31 an hour, based on a 40-hour workweek. Sure, he gives money to his charitable foundation, but basically his is a fortune that endlessly renews itself.

Despite all the money Ellison spent on the America's Cup, as well as on the island of Lanai, which he bought for $500 million or so, he still owns roughly a quarter of Oracle, which is about what he owned 20 years ago.

In the early days of Oracle, back when Silicon Valley titans were still paid on a human scale, Ellison heard about a company offering fighter plane rides for a few thousand dollars. An aviation buff, he tried to entice Bob Miner, a co-founder of Oracle, to come along. Miner, famous for his frugal ways, nixed the idea.

"You obviously have far more money than you should," he wrote to Ellison, according to "The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison," a biography of Ellison by Mike Wilson. "It's things like this that caused the French Revolution."

A revolution in Silicon Valley may be edging a little closer there are bona fide protesters now, who vomit on tech-company shuttle buses and dress in clown costumes to make a point about inequality but Ellison sails on.

The America's Cup left San Francisco a few million dollars in the red. It apparently wasn't as big a draw as hyped. You'd think that the billionaire who brought the event to town could cover that deficit with his petty cash. It might be the right thing to do, but no one is holding his breath.






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