Government // Enterprise Architecture
Commentary
7/26/2010
07:33 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary

Global CIO: Larry Ellison Looms Large Over Put-Down Of Oracle President

Charles Phillips' claim about Oracle's $70B war chest is belittled in a stunningly public clarification that's also a put-down.



I'm still scratching my head over what happened last week with Oracle president Charles Phillips, who's as smart and polished and accomplished and worldly as any executive you'll find--but who also made what appears to be a disastrous misstatement regarding company strategy.

Speaking at an industry event last week in Colorado, Phillips made the audacious claim that Oracle is amassing a war chest of $70 billion to spend on M&A over the next five years. That's a staggering number even for Oracle, which in the previous five years has indeed spent half that much ($35 billion) on acquisitions.

As it turns out, Oracle later insisted it has no such vast M&A budget—not even anything close. So we might have expected that Oracle would issue a simple clarification, including a comment from Phillips saying that he "misspoke," which has become today's verbal pixie dust for obscuring and obfuscating anything said previously.

Some folks might have clucked their tongues and suggested Phillips take a long weekend to rejuvenate, and that would probably been about it.

But turning Phillips' provocative comment into a full-blown case of corporate intrigue, Oracle eschewed that simple route and instead issued a formal clarification that not only failed to offer any restrained mea culpa comment from Phillips but instead went to the extreme in highlighting the ludicrous nature of the comments of an executive so sullied that Oracle's press release would not even mention his name.

In a stunningly public and humiliating fashion, Phillips--whose 7-year tenure at Oracle has been marked by massive increases in revenue, market share, profits, and market cap--was portrayed (although not directly by name) in an Oracle press release as having dreamed it all up.

On top of that, the public thrashing was not administered by boss Larry Ellison but by Oracle's head of corporate communications, vice president Karen Tillman, who--either ironically or perversely--reports up through Phillips in the Oracle organization.

Here are two versions of what Phillips said at the industry event, and then the Oracle statement:

From a Reuters news story: "Company President Charles Phillips told a conference sponsored by Fortune Magazine in Aspen late on Thursday that Oracle could 'easily' spend about double the $35 billion it had spent over the past five years.

" 'We haven't done much in hardware, other than one acquisition. There's a lot more we could do there. There are adjacent businesses like content that we could get into,' he said" in the Reuters piece.

And from a nasdaq.com news story: "Phillips made his assertion at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Conference in Aspen, Colorado, stating that 'If you look forward for the next five years, we'll probably double what we've spent on acquisitions in the last five years.'

"Over the past five years, Oracle has spent around $35 billion on acquisitions," according to the nasdaq.com article.

And here are excerpts from Oracle's statement on the matter, which came under the headline, "Oracle Spokesperson Clarifies Executive's Comments": "Oracle does not have a five- year acquisition budget. We don't even have a one-year acquisition budget. While it is highly unlikely that we will spend anything approaching $70 billion in five years, we will be opportunistic and, if market conditions warrant, we will buy additional companies that further our strategic goals and address our customers' needs," said Oracle spokesperson Karen Tillman."

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Does the phrase "twisting the knife" come to mind? I mean, not only does the clarification clarify that there is no 5-year plan, but it further clarifies the clarification all the way into a refutation by adding, "We don't even have a one-year acquisition budget."

Apparently feeling that didn't go far enough in discrediting Phillips' error, the statement goes on to further frame out the whole comment as some sort of wild hallucination:



"While it is highly unlikely that we will spend anything approaching $70 billion in five years, we will be opportunistic and, if market conditions warrant, ..." etc., etc., etc.

Not just unlikely but "highly unlikely"; not just something under $70 billion but not even "anything approaching $70 billion."

No reference by name to Charles Phillips: Oracle president and board member, Ellison protege, and the man widely credited with harnessing Oracle's extraordinary technical prowess and turning it into a powerful global sales and marketing machine. And for the verbal hits to come from the head of PR--well, trust me, that's about as rare as Oracle and SAP saying sweet things to each other.

And all of that is why I think the "clarification" was also intended to be public embarrassment for Phillips. I have been around this business for more than a few years and in all that time, across big companies great and awful, I have never seen such a public woodshedding. Never.

I know Karen Tillman and have always found her to be sharp, fair, reasonable, and as tough as the occasion calls for. And while I have no hard evidence to the contrary, I cannot fathom that Karen Tillman wrote that terse, mean-spirited and belittling comment.

As for Larry Ellison, I don't know him but I do know his public comments and persona, and have been a very close student of every public statement he's uttered over the past 20 months. And there's definitely an Ellisonian ring to this couplet: "Oracle does not have a five-year acquisition budget. We don't even have a one-year acquisition budget." That is exactly, precisely the tone he has used frequently to goad SAP.

In addition, there's one and only one person at Oracle who could publicly speak so dismissively about Charles Phillip--again, company president and board member--and that one person is Larry Ellison. So why wasn't the Oracle statement attributed to the company founder and superstar CEO? To cause further embarrassment to Phillips, and create further distance between him and Ellison? I don't know; it's just speculation.

Whether or not Oracle, in fact, had or has a $70 billion acquisition war chest for the next five years, we mere mortals will probably never know. But either they have it and wanted to keep it secret, and Phillips breached a deep confidence by mentioning it; or, they don't have it, and he made an impossibly foolish and dangerous mistake by saying they do in front of a big and public crowd at an event produced by a media company.

I've known Charles Phillips on and off for more than a decade and have found him to be one of the most upstanding and honest executives I've met, and my admiration was certainly kindled by his being a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and then a captain in the United States Marine Corps before he started at Morgan Stanley and later was recruited by Ellison to join Oracle as president.

Nobody's perfect, and Phillips is more than man enough to handle whatever comes his way. But I hope that Oracle and the CEO for whom Phillips has done so much will conclude that the woodshedding session is over and done, that lessons have been learned, that the corporate pecking order has been conclusively reaffirmed, and that it's time for Oracle and all of its executives to get back to the business of tormenting their competitors instead of one of their own.

Because it's hard for me to imagine any big Oracle customer watching this whole awkward episode and coming out of it feeling better about Oracle.

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GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at bevans@techweb.com.

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