Nutanix cofounder CEO Dheeraj Pandey has never hung out with Larry Ellison (though he has hobnobbed with Bill Gates).
But about 12 years ago, he spent a couple of years working at Ellison’s company, Oracle, and in that brief time, he became convinced that Ellison was “one of most misunderstood business leaders of our time,” Pandey told Business Insider.
So when he became CEO of his own company, Nutanix, in 2009, he began to seriously study Larry Ellison.
He wanted to emulate what Ellison did to turn Oracle into the $38 billion-in-revenues giant it is today. And Ellison did it while being the longest running founder CEO in Valley history. Although Ellison technically stepped down as CEO last year, that was largely a symbolic move. At age 71, Ellison is still the company’s key executive as executive chairman and CTO.
Pandey is not cut from Ellison’s brash cloth. Pandey’s a contemplative man, your classic thoughtful engineer type. But studying Ellison has worked wonders for him so far.
Nutanix led the creation of a new hardware market it calls it “hyper-converged” computing, a new type of computer that combines server, storage and software known virtualization (which helps computers run efficiently).
By the time the company was five years old in 2014, he had raised $312.2 million in venture funding, and landed a $2+ valuation.
Nutanix was an early unicorn that helped usher in the billion-dollar-startup-valuation frenzy of 2015.
And although the valuations of some those unicorns has fallen, according to investor Fidelity, Nutanix is still worth what it was in 2014.
Pandey tells us that Ellison taught him six main things about leadership:
No. 1: Ellison is obsessed with the company’s products.
Ellison thought up the idea of Oracle’s initial database more than 30 years ago. Today, he’s still the company’s chief technology officer, elbows deep in Oracle’s database and many of its other products.
His obsession meant that he translates his vision of where the industry and company is going into particular product features, such as making the database internet-friendly back in the 1990s, and remaking it for cloud computing a few years ago.
“All that translates to stickiness. It’s the most sticky product for enterprise ever,” says Pandey, meaning that companies today can’t easily rip and replace their Oracle database.
No. 2: He stays close with “subject-matter expert” (SME) engineers, the people who are building the products, often three to five levels below him.
In the early days, this led to a culture known as “Oracle Red,” the core team of engineers who stayed with the company for decades, Pandley says.
“As companies grow, it’s easy to delegate relationship building to managers and then managers of managers, four levels deep. A lot of SMEs, your builders and creators, will start to feel disenfranchised,” Pandey says.
But Ellison keeps tabs on these folks. “He knows how to cut to five layers to get through to the talent,” Pandley says.
Most importantly, he pays them well.
No. 3: He isn’t afraid to nurture the rebels in the company. “Ellison was never about surrounding himself
with yes men only,” Pandley says.
Past star executives include Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, Siebel Systems’ Tom Siebel, PeopleSoft’s Craig Conway, former HP chairman Ray Lane.
“All of whom eventually competed against Oracle, and yet without them, Oracle wouldn’t have been the Oracle we know today,” Pandley says.
No. 4: He has a take-no-prisoners attitude with the competition. This is the Larry Ellison most of us know — the guy who’s always smack-talking his competitors, and sometimes suing them.
No. 5: He has “unflinching conviction” in the pursuit of his business strategy. For instance, he held an 18-month siege in his hostile takeover of PeopleSoft, the nastiest hostile takeover in software history.
And when the Department of Justice stepped in to try and block the merger, he even fought the DoJ. Eventually, Ellison prevailed and Oracle swallowed PeopleSoft. “Many other business leaders would have said, ‘let’s just give up,'” Pandley says.
No.6: He’s actually willing to “eat humble pie” and change strategies (although he’s not very humble about it).
It’s one thing to have unflinching conviction to get where you want to go. It’s another thing to be going in one direction when the market is clearly going in another.
Ellison has done an about-face many times. Most recently, he pushed Oracle into the cloud computing market after originally pooh-poohing the idea.
He also moved from “only built here” attitude to aggressive M&As, and from all-in on the Unix operating system to all-in on Linux.
No. 7: He mastered big, difficult-to-crack markets. These include the US Federal government, Japan, and China, Pandley says.
“Oracle as a company understood Japan and China better than anyone, better than Microsoft,” he adds. Ellison particularly loved Japan.
And it loved Oracle back. In 2000, shortly after the Internet bubble burst and funds were hard to come by in the US, Oracle’s Japanese subsidiary raised $7.5 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.
“It was extremely strategic in the way Larry Ellison built his business and I learned a lot not just in execution but in building the culture and strength of character,” Pandey says. “I have respect for him.”
So far his emulation of Larry Ellison is working for him.