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The Three Musketeers of Oracle Corp. claim that recent corporate title changes are a sign of – well, nothing, really. So, someone please tell me, what is the point?
Oracle founder Larry Ellison recently announced he will step down from his position as CEO -- which he has held for more than 35 years -- to become CTO and executive chairman of its board of directors. Mark Hurd and Safra Catz, previously co-presidents, will now be co-CEOs. Hurd and Catz used to report to Ellison; now they'll report to the board as a whole.
As SearchOracle reported, Hurd and Catz both said they don't plan any changes at the company. "I want to be very clear," Catz said. "There will actually be no changes. Not no significant changes -- no changes." Ellison took a similar tack: "I'm going to continue doing what I have been doing over the last several years, and they're going to continue what they've been doing over the last several years," he said.
So, if nothing is changing, why do it? During an earnings call, Ellison said that Hurd and Catz "deserve the recognition of their new titles." But that raises more questions. It's either an admission that Ellison has had the title of CEO far too long, considering the actual day-to-day responsibilities of executives within the company, or it's an admission that Ellison isn't ready give up control at the company and the new titles for Hurd and Catz are just that -- titles.
If Ellison wants to focus on technology and officially hand over responsibility for the day-to-day operations of Oracle to Hurd and Catz, the company should have been more explicit about that. Its press release did state that Ellison wants to focus his energy on product engineering and technology development. But, couching that in a frame of "no changes" is a misstep.
Microsoft made almost the exact same move 14 years ago. Bill Gates promoted Steve Ballmer to CEO but remained as chairman of the board and created a new title for himself as chief software architect. Sound familiar? It should. Yet rather than talk about how nothing was changing, Gates made a different kind of statement.
"It is a great pleasure for me to announce that Steve Ballmer -- my long-term partner in building Microsoft and a great business leader -- is being named CEO," Gates said. "I'm returning to what I love most -- focusing on technologies for the future." But there was more. He said Microsoft officials had realized "that we must refocus and reallocate our resources and talents against our key priorities and challenges." Gates added that he himself had come to the conclusion that the company's existing organizational structure "wasn't optimal to really take advantage of [new business opportunities] to the degree that we should."
To be honest, the writing for the management change at Oracle was on the wall. I remember sitting in the press room at Oracle OpenWorld last year when the news came that Ellison would be skipping his second keynote to go watch the America's Cup yachting race. I shrugged. It was a big deal, and yet I was completely unsurprised. Ever since I've covered OpenWorld, the opening keynote on Sunday was always the big one, while the afternoon one on Wednesday was usually a let-down -- sometimes just potshots at competitors, at other times drawn-out technical demos or largely a repeat of his Sunday keynote.
And besides, Ellison made it clear the whole week that his focus was on the America's Cup races and the remarkable comeback that his Oracle Team USA made to retain the Cup.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the possibility of Oracle acquiring Salesforce.com, with one of the reasons being Ellison's foresight into the future of Oracle. He turned 70 in August and won't be around forever, so he must lay plans now for the future of the company and what it will look like once he's no longer part of it.
"The board's responsibility is continuity of the company," said Michael Corey, president of president of Ntirety, a division of HOSTING, and a former president of the Independent Oracle Users Group. "No one lives forever. So if this board isn't thinking about continuity of the business, then they're not doing their job."
Corey's comments here are apt. Ellison, Hurd and Catz may try to say that there's nothing changing here. But it would be foolish to not put in place a plan -- however long-term -- for the future of Oracle post-Ellison.
News Director Mark Fontecchio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @SearchOracle.