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Rags to Riches CEOs: Larry Ellison


From the humblest of beginnings to self-styled deity -- and multi-billionaire.

There's an old joke in Silicon Valley about Oracle (ORCL) founder and CEO Larry Ellison:

Q: What's the difference between God and Larry Ellison?

A: God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison.

Larry Ellison is currently the world's fourth-richest person and the third-richest in America, with a net worth of approximately $26 billion.

But it wasn't always this way for software pioneer.

Ellison was brought into this world on August 17, 1944 in the Bronx, New York. His mother, Florence Spellman, was a 19-year-old single mother. Unable to care for her child, Spellman sent Larry to live on the South Side of Chicago with her aunt and uncle, Lillian and Louis Ellison, who legally adopted him when he was nine months old.

It wasn't until he was 12 that Ellison learned his parents weren't his biological ones, and he didn't learn the name of his mother -- or meet her -- until he was 48.

He never knew the identity of his father.

As a rebellious teenager, Ellison often butted heads with his adoptive father, who, according to reports, took every opportunity to tell young Larry that he'd never amount to anything.

Ellison enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he was named science student of the year as a freshman. At the end of his sophomore year, Lillian Ellison died and her adopted son dropped out of school. The next fall, Ellison enrolled at the University of Chicago, but again left -- this time after only one semester.

Louis Ellison was, by now, more convinced than ever that Larry was headed nowhere in life. However, this may have been exactly what Larry needed to hear.

"Oh, it was a powerful motivation," he's quoted saying in a book by author Michael Wilson. "I think my dad had a wonderful effect on me."

Apparently, he did.

After heading west to Berkeley, California, with nothing more than a few dollars in his pocket, Ellison worked a number of jobs over the next eight years until he found a home as a programmer at Ampex, where he helped build the first IBM (IBM) compatible mainframe system.

In 1977, Ellison and two Ampex co-workers started their own company, Software Development Labs, with Ellison serving as CEO. Shortly thereafter, SDL won a contract to build a relational database management system for the CIA, codenamed "Oracle." The firm went on to develop the system for commercial use and named it, appropriately enough, Oracle. In 1981, IBM chose SDL's Oracle system to run its mainframes and sales doubled each year for the next seven years.

It was then that Larry Ellison changed the name of SDL to the Oracle Corporation, which today boasts a market capitalization of $109 billion dollars.

Apparently Louis Ellison's "motivational" put-downs worked.

As Charlie Rose pointed out in a television interview, Ellison is known for quoting Genghis Khan who said, "It's not sufficient I succeed. Everyone else must fail."

At least the guy's having fun with the spoils of his success. Ellison flies an SIAI-Marchetti S.211 fighter plane, used by the Italian Air Force. He also tried to import a decommissioned Russian MiG-29, but the US government stopped it.

"It's considered a firearm, even though that's not my intention. It is disarmed, but theoretically you could rearm it and take out a couple of cities," he said.

His boat, Rising Sun, over 450 feet long, is the sixth-largest privately owned yacht in the world and cost $200 million to build.

All that wealth and power can create resentment. Which is why Oracle preemptively bought the domain names,,,, and -- one of which the Portola Valley School District in California would probably love to get their hands on.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Ellison managed to convince the San Mateo assessment appeals board that his 23-acre estate modeled on a Japanese emperor's sixteenth-century country residence suffered from "significant functional obsolescence" because there's a finite market for high-end luxury homes, limited appeal for sixteenth-century Japanese architecture, and the "over improvements" and "excessive" landscaping prove costly to maintain.

The board agreed, slicing the valuation of Ellison's home by around $100 million for each of the last three years, for a tax savings of more than $3 million.

Ellison's savings is the school district's loss, which will lose an estimated $250,000 to $300,000 a year as a direct result of the tax reassessment, and will be forced to lay off six employees.

"Whatever I want, I get," Ellison once said. "That's the beauty of being worth $26 billion. I thoroughly recommend it."
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