Coop's Corner: Can Ellison lead Oracle as a solo act?

The Ray and Larry show is over: Is the chairman up to the challenge?

No disrespect to Carly Fiorina, but Hewlett-Packard settled for No. 2 when it went shopping for a new chief executive last year.

But the job didn't get offered to Ray Lane, who would have been a perfect choice for the post. He was also the perfect choice a couple of years earlier when Novell begged him to take over after the ouster of Bob Frankenberg. (It didn't hurt that Oracle had opened the bank to reward him with an annual take-home of $2 million in salary and bonuses -- not to mention tens of millions in stock options.)

Why pay Michael Jordan numbers for the services of a former consultant from Booz, Allen & Hamilton? Well, as various and sundry dotcoms without a clue will attest, a great chief operating officer is awfully hard to find in this day and age. And that is something Larry Ellison is going to discover quite soon.

Thanks largely to Lane's labors, the company dropped its annoying habit of writing contracts for products that it couldn't deliver. That practice, which had attracted the less-than-tender attentions of auditors, ultimately forced Oracle to restate its earnings for 1990.

This train was heading for a nasty and perhaps fatal crackup until Lane ended all the shenanigans when he came on board in 1992. It was a prodigious accomplishment, though you'd never know any of that by the bum's rush he received Friday night when Oracle issued two paragraphs announcing his departure.

The release was the usual scripted hack stuff out of the PR department, replete with the mandatory smooch and an Ellison quotation thanking Lane for all his contributions: "I am grateful to Ray for all of his efforts. He will be missed. We wish him nothing but the best."


In the rare follow-ups that Oracle conducted with the press, Ellison stressed there was nothing strange or otherwise untoward about the announcement. The transition had been in the works for some time, and any suggestions of something more sinister were simply bogus.

I guess that's why Oracle's powers-that-be decided to release the news at 10:59 p.m. Eastern Time, just before the start of the longest holiday weekend of the year. Even in Larry Land, that one stretches the boundaries of credulity to absurd dimensions.

The natural suspicion is that Lane simply had had his fill of Ellison's antics, the straw that broke the camel's back being the boss's admission last week that he ordered the funding of a covert corporate espionage program against Microsoft.

Then again, maybe it was just time to go.

How much richer do you need to become? How many more sales do you need to bag before the world recognizes you for the accomplishment?

Besides, Ellison has increasingly become more involved in Oracle's day-to-day operations -- including Lane's sales and consulting group. And in an interview with BusinessWeek a few months ago, Lane hinted he wasn't all too thrilled about his boss's greater participation.

"Some days, I'll walk out of a meeting saying, `I don't need this.' But then you look at the stock price. What Larry's doing is working ..." he told the magazine.

Whatever went on, the more intriguing story is about to begin. Every successful team needs a strong No. 2 to back up a strong No. 1. Lane and Ellison made for an incredible team, with each executive complementing the other quite nicely.

Can Ellison pull it off as a solo routine?

Lane's departure comes as the company faces renewed competition in the enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management markets from the likes of SAP and PeopleSoft. Meanwhile, IBM's DB2 operations are catching up with Oracle in the database market. And then, there's always Microsoft.

If other high-powered executives decide to follow Lane out the door, that would create a world of hurt at Oracle. It would also pose a challenge that tests Ellison's mettle as never before. In coming months, we'll finally know what stuff he's made of.


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