January 12, 2015 / 6:23 AM / in 3 years

Ellison's backing helps Kurian's star to rise at Oracle

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Every Tuesday and Wednesday at around 2 pm, Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle Corp, gathers his lieutenants in the board room on the top floor of the software giant’s headquarters in Redwood City, California to hear engineers present new products and strategies.

Executive Vice President, Oracle, Product Development, Thomas Kurian. REUTERS/Oracle Corp

Several people who have attended the meetings over the years said all the top Oracle executives have assigned seats – including Ellison himself, the two co-CEOs Safra Catz and Mark Hurd, and Thomas Kurian, who was appointed president of software development last week.

But sometimes during these meetings, which last several hours, it is as if Ellison, 70, and Kurian, 47, are the only ones in the room, the people said. Ellison turns to Kurian for a second opinion and affirmation on product decisions, conversations that one former Oracle executive described as “rapid-fire exchanges”.

“He always looks back at Thomas and says, ‘Thomas what do you think? Thomas let’s do that.’ It was something to watch them,” said the former executive.

Kurian’s sway within Oracle, as evidenced by the dynamic in these meetings as well as his growing responsibilities, has some current and former company executives convinced that he will one day succeed Ellison and run the technology company, which has a market cap of about $190 billion.

Even after Ellison named Hurd and Catz as co-CEOs in September, insiders said they believed Kurian was the man to watch at Oracle. One senior Oracle executive said that after Hurd and Catz were promoted, top executives worried about keeping Kurian motivated and happy. He continued to report directly to Ellison, now executive chairman of the board, along with Hurd, Catz and two others.

“He has Larry’s ear. He is his trusted soldier,” said another former Oracle executive.

Oracle declined to comment for this story or make Ellison and Kurian available for interview.

OTHER INTERESTS

Ellison seems to be in no hurry to take a back seat. The billionaire is currently very actively involved with the company, and was even appointed Oracle’s chief technology officer in September, but he has in recent years spent an increasing amount of time on other interests, including his sailing team, and as he develops the Hawaiian island he largely controls into an eco-tourism destination.

Appointing the co-CEOs helps him delegate administrative and sales tasks that he has little interest in, the sources said.

The sources say that when Ellison does eventually hand over the reins, he will want to entrust Oracle to someone who lives and breathes technology, and Kurian is seen fitting that job description best among the top executives.

Kurian has always kept his plans close to his chest, and would often brush off rumors about succession with a smile, one of the sources said.  

He is already well compensated. For the last fiscal year, Catz and Hurd made $37 million each. Kurian made $26.7 million, mainly through stock option awards, regulatory filings show.

   

NO SMALL TALK

Outside technology circles and Oracle little is known about Kurian. In interviews, current and former Oracle executives provided insights into how the India-born engineer rose up the ranks and what may have kept him back from getting the corner office already.

They painted a picture of a smart technologist who understands Oracle’s products inside out, works long hours, executes Ellison’s vision and has such little patience for small talk that some people think he is uncomfortable in one-on-one conversations.

His biggest achievement so far is seen as building Oracle’s middleware business, the software plumbing that connects different parts of a computer network - such as the link between an operating system and applications used by businesses – into a substantial enterprise. 

He is also credited for overseeing Oracle’s vast and still rapidly evolving suite of products, from business software applications to servers and databases. Now, Ellison has put him in charge of the company’s move to the cloud – the use of the Internet to run applications or store data - where it lags competitors. Success in the endeavor could give Kurian even more influence at the company, said Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, who says the executive is extremely well regarded in technology circles.

At the same time, the sources said Kurian’s management style has sometimes turned people off. 

People who have worked with him over the years said he does not sufficiently delegate responsibility, which has increasingly become a problem as his mandate has grown over the years. Although his responsibilities have grown a lot, he still likes to get involved in the minutia of various projects, these people said. 

    

A QUICK RISE    

Kurian was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala and was raised in Bangalore. He came to the United States in 1986, and went to Princeton for graduate school in electrical engineering. 

He joined Oracle in 1996 after a brief stint as an associate at McKinsey & Co, the management consultancy firm.

From there, Kurian quickly rose to become one of Ellison’s closest confidants. By the mid 2000s, Oracle was making a big push to build middleware into its next billion-dollar business, and Ellison picked Kurian to lead that effort.

By fiscal 2006, the business achieved its goal and Kurian established himself as an executive to watch within Oracle, the sources said.

His next project, however, was not that successful. 

Oracle had made several multibillion-dollar acquisitions over the same period, including human resource software maker PeopleSoft and customer management applications maker Siebel, and plugged those assets under its applications business. In 2007, Ellison put Kurian in charge of integrating these different products.   

But the project called Fusion, which cost billions of dollars, was marred by a series of delays, the sources said. And by the time Oracle was able to get its Fusion applications available to customers in 2011, the software world had started moving onto the cloud. Vendors such as Workday and Salesforce.com, for example, started taking market share from Oracle and other tech giants in human resource and customer relationship management applications.

Kurian’s new responsibilities for Oracle’s cloud business will put him in a position to even that score.

Reporting By Nadia Damouni; Editing by Martin Howell

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