Return of Larry Ellison: the god of Silicon Valley

Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, was a pioneer of the US tech scene in the 1970s. The AI boom has given him a new lease of life.

Larry Ellison attends the Rebels With A Cause Gala 2019
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are plenty of videos on YouTube extolling Larry Ellison as “The God of Silicon Valley”. Some (though probably not Ellison himself) might quibble, but, in an industry fixated on youth, the Oracle founder, 79, is certainly a Grand Old Man. A pioneer of the 1970s Valley scene, he has steered his database company through every twist and turn of the industry since staging more apparently improbable comebacks than any of his vaunted peers.

Larry Ellison's rebirth

In what is probably the twilight of his career, Ellison has just pulled it off again, says Lex in the Financial Times, as one of the big winners of the boom in artificial intelligence (AI). Four years ago, Oracle – then heavily reliant on “mature cash flows” – seemed destined to fade into dinosaur territory. But in a turnaround that even Ellison describes as “astonishing”, it has found a new role as the cloud-based “backbone” of the large language models that power the likes of ChatGPT.

The reward for this pivot is a near doubling of Oracle’s market capitalisation to roughly $400 billion, taking Ellison (who holds 40% of shares) back to his old stamping ground near the top of the rich lists. His personal wealth jumped 14% “overnight” last month as shares surged on news of Oracle’s “bumper outlook”, says Fortune. The macho, sailing-obsessed entrepreneur is now the “seventh richest person on Earth”, worth around $158 billion. That equates to rather a lot of yachts.

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Ellison, as Vanity Fair observed in 1997, has always been driven by “burning ambition” – often taking the form of personal feuds. For years, he was obsessed with one-upping Bill Gates. His other stand-out character trait was a “penchant for making outrageous, publicity-seeking pronouncements” to gain a reaction – evidence of a “tender psyche”, perhaps attributable to his challenging start in life.

Born in the Bronx in New York at the end of World War II to a teenaged single mother, Florence Spellman, Ellison caught pneumonia at nine months and nearly died. His mother sent him to Chicago to live with a great-aunt and uncle who adopted him. He lost touch with her completely until 1991 when – spurred by the near-death experiences of both Oracle (which hit a financial crisis) and himself (in a body-boarding accident) – he hired an investigator to trace her. A reconciliation was effected but he never found his father.

Ellison went to high school in Chicago’s South Side, but dropped out of the University of Illinois when his adoptive mother died. A second attempt at college, at the University of Chicago, also ended abruptly. By then he had discovered the Shangri-La of California in “the first flowerings of the hippy revolution”. In 1964, he put every penny he had into a turquoise Thunderbird convertible and headed west. 

“The one marketable skill he had was the modest amount of computer programming he’d acquired in high school.” Ellison “bounced around from job to job” – taking in stints at Wells Fargo and Amdahl – before founding his own company in 1977 with $2,000 of funding, says Business Insider. The idea was to create a “relational database”, then a “revolutionary idea”. Renamed Oracle after its flagship product in 1982, the company grew fast as the PC revolution got underway – floating in 1986. By the time Ellison was 49, he was a billionaire.

The Oracle renaissance

Flamboyant and controversial, Ellison built the company in his own image. Ellison had expensive tastes, spending lavishly both on his personal life and expanding Oracle. His acquisitive drive saw Oracle grab companies such as PeopleSoft and Sun Microsystems at the start of the century. Meanwhile, he indulged his love of competitive sports by racing sailing boats and buying tennis tournaments. In 2012, he bought the Hawaiian island of Lanai. Ellison has also always been supportive of fellow mouldbreakers – for good and bad. He sat on the board of the now disgraced Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos, backed Elon Musk at Tesla and is a long-time Donald Trump supporter. The message from Oracle’s latest renaissance is that his own days as a barnstormer aren’t over yet.

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Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.