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AC34: Who is Larry Ellison?

For a number of years, Larry Ellison, the co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corp., has been an enigma. With a personal net worth of around $40 billion, his life is outsized, whether he’s running a company with 120,000 employees, pursuing the America’s Cup, or buying the entire Hawaiian island of Lanai.

In researching my book The Billionaire and The Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed Up to Win Sailing’s Greatest Race, the America’s Cup, I had the opportunity to meet with Larry regularly at his home in Woodside, California, where we talked about everything from his dedication to Oracle to his love of sailing. During that time he also explained to me how his sailing has grown from a hobby to an obsession with winning the sport’s Holy Grail.

What sparked his interest in the sport was a National Geographic cover story on Robin Lee Graham, who was then the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the globe aboard his 24-foot sloop, Dove. Larry, who read the story as a teenager living on the South Side of Chicago with his adoptive parents, envied Graham’s freedom and was captivated by the idea of finding adventure on the high seas.

His decision to pursue the America’s Cup came in late spring of 2000, after he and the crew of his Farr-designed 80-footer, Sayonara, had just won Antigua Sailing Week and claimed their fourth maxi-class world championship.

“Team Sayonara hadn’t lost a buoy regatta since it was launched in 1995,” Larry told me. “Team New Zealand hadn’t lost since 1995. Someone has to lose in 2003.” Larry figured he could buy the San Francisco 49ers football team and still not play quarterback. Here he could buy the team and drive the boat.

Larry told me he relishes competitive sailing because it’s where he is judged on his performance, not his wealth or professional success. If he underperforms, he has Oracle Racing head Russell Coutts to scream at him: if he sails well, Coutts, in his understated Kiwi way, may say, “Good job.” When he’s racing, Larry gets a break from being Larry Ellison.

In a recent interview, Larry told me he didn’t realize when he first went after the America’s Cup that running a Cup campaign has “a lot more in common with my job running Oracle than my experience racing Sayonara.” He admits that while there are days when the work and expense feel worth it, there are others when he has wished he’d picked another goal.

“My life has been all about testing my limits and learning when I fail,” he said. “It’s been a journey of discovery, of seeing how far I can go. I’m trapped in a never-ending cycle of competing and learning. Once I was successful with Sayonara, I tried the America’s Cup. Now, how do you stop when you are winning? It’s hard for me to quit when I’m winning. It’s just hard for me to quit.”

This time around Larry has set out not only to defend the America’s Cup but to remake the event in a way that attracts not just sailors but the general public as well. Whether or not he succeeds remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens this summer, his love for the sport that captivated him as a teenager will endure.

Julian Guthrie is an award-winning journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle. For more on her book about Ellison and the Cup, visit julianguthriesf.com

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