Secret passages and skipped meals: Oracle's CEO gave us a rare peek at what it really takes to run a $37 billion company

With $37 billion in annual revenue, Oracle is one of the world’s biggest tech companies. And every year tens of thousands of customers, partners, industry analysts, and journalists descend upon San Francisco for the company’s annual OpenWorld tech conference.

It is a pinnacle week for the company’s top execs, its two famous CEOs, Safra Catz and Mark Hurd, and its even more famous founder, Larry Ellison, who stepped down from the CEO role in 2014 to become executive chairman and CTO, though he’s still very much the leader of the executive triad.

Oracle invited me to spend a full day shadowing Hurd last week at OpenWorld, as he met with customers, analysts and others on the biggest day of the conference.

During the week, Hurd met with nearly 500 people either in individual 1:1 meetings or in small groups, answering their questions, solving problems, issuing reassurances and explaining the company’s plans and strategy, all at a surprisingly exhausting pace.

It was a rare close-up look at the hard work a CEO really does to run global tech company.

Our day together started at 8 a.m. at a local Starbucks. Hurd had been up for hours already (since about 4:30 a.m.), working. He always wakes up that early. He warned me to wear comfortable shoes.

Mark Hurd
Oracle CEO Mark Hurd, Business Insider's Julie Bort

See: The truth behind Oracle CEO Mark Hurd's Starbucks addiction

Hurd surprisingly does not travel with an entourage of assistants. He's famous for his memory and doesn't need a lot of hand-holding on his schedule. This day, it looked like he had an entourage but the crowd was mostly me and a PR representative. We were sometimes joined by the top Oracle exec responsible for the whole event and the Oracle exec responsible for a particular roundtable or meeting.

Business Insider

Meeting with customers is clearly one of Hurd's favourite things to do. He was in high spirits, happy and joking with me and others all day. He was funny. He's also a singularly focused guy: sales and operations. He's so oriented toward that, at one point, I mentioned the singer Adele and he quipped, 'Now that's productivity! She had one bad breakup and she turned it into a dozen songs.'

Business Insider

Our first stop was the opening keynote for a special program called Leaders Circle. This is an invitational program for a few hundred Oracle customers, and it's for business people rather than technical folks. Hurd's keynote and Q&A session was the kickoff. The group also heard from Safra Catz and Larry Ellison, and has its own special track of sessions and meet-ups.

Oracle

Before the Leader's Circle keynote, Hurd spotted his friend, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics, who was also speaking at the show and at the Leader's Circle conference. They chatted before the event kicked off.

Business Insider

One of the funniest moments of the day came early. The room filled with about 150 Leaders Circle participants and Hurd, ever punctual, started his keynote right on time. He noticed a row of empty seats reserved for Oracle employees and commented on the missing employees to the crowd. In his best CEO voice he said: 'Don't worry, we'll find them.' The room of managers laughed. Shortly after, those seats were dutifully filled. It was actually a packed room.

Business Insider

Hurd gave the crowd a mini-version of his major public keynote and then did a Q&A. The keynote included predictions of how cloud computing would eat the world within 10 years. This belief is why Oracle is hurling itself into cloud computing as fast as it can, spending billions to build new data centres, launching new cloud services, converting all of its software into cloud offerings, and pitching it all heavily to its customers.

Business Insider

In all of his keynotes, Hurd gleefully reported that Oracle was the 'fastest growing' big cloud player, referring to its revenue growth (not the total dollars of new revenue). It's on track to be a $2 billion business and most of this is from companies that have never used Oracle's business applications before, Hurd says. $2 billion isn't chicken scratch, although it's still a small fraction of the company's $37 billion in revenue.

Business Insider

Hurd has spent the past four years revamping the sales force to sell cloud. His big bet: hiring thousands of recent college grads and creating a whole new training system for them (a program called 'Class of'). It was a controversial decision at the time and angered some people in the salesforce, who worried that he was trying to replace experienced sales pros with lower-paid kids. Today, the Class Of program is working extremely well in bringing entry level sales people to Oracle, Hurd tells us. And he's proud of the whole sales team for embracing the program.

Jacob Gerson (right), Camille French, Dan Elfman, Ryan Thomas
These four salespeople were recruited by Oracle from college and went through the 'Class Of' program.

However, Oracle's customers, and the tech community at large, are not ready to crown Oracle the cloud leader yet. During Hurd's main conference keynote, after telling attendees many times that Oracle was the fastest growing cloud, Hurd did a live poll with the audience. At least one-third of them said they thought AWS was the fastest growing. The numbers were still coming in, with AWS hitting 30%, when Oracle pulled this poll off the screen.

Business Insider
Live audience polling at Oracle OpenWorld

Other than that one polling question, Hurd was really happy with that keynote and somewhat relieved it was over, he told people the next day. It was a complicated thing -- live polling combined with videos and on-stage appearances from customers, including a few friendly jokes about Larry Ellison. Executives worry about Murphy's Law during their big live presentations.

Business Insider

After the Leader's Circle keynote, we literally ran to the next event: an invitational roundtable breakfast for human resources execs. Someone has mapped out the shortest route between each room where Hurd is scheduled to talk, which almost always involves cutting through a back kitchen ...

Business Insider

... or dashing through some secret-passage-like back hallway. (These pictures are blurry because I'm running to catch up. Hurd moves fast and no one was waiting for me.)

Business Insider

At one point, we were whisked to an event at another venue by hired chauffeured cars. I didn't ride with Hurd. They hired a second car for me and the PR rep.

Business Insider
Julie Bort in a chauffeured car

The second roundtable of the day is clearly one of Hurd's favourites: A Q&A with human resources execs. Oracle sells a lot of HR software but this talk, led by Oracle's head of HR Joyce Westerdahl, was about how Oracle hires, manages, and trains its own employees. Hurd lights up when he talks about managing and motivating people. The audience asked a lot of questions, everything from how Oracle handles international hiring to how to keep good people, and he openly answered everything.

Business Insider

Hurd's big advice: focus on training direct supervisors, especially incentives that reward them to nurture all their employees, not just their stars. If employees have a good supervisor, they love their jobs. If they don't, they leave, he says. Oracle's Gretchen Alarcon, who heads Oracle's human resources product team, also told the room how Oracle uses its own HR software to track employee satisfaction.

Business Insider

As much as his schedule allowed, Hurd stopped and talked to employees as he saw them all day long, whether they were attending a roundtable talk or manning the booths in the hallway. If you were an Oracle employee in the room with him, he seemed to know about it.

Business Insider

Before each roundtable or keynote, the executive in charge of that meeting would brief Hurd. Just prior to a Q&A with market research analysts, he talked to the VP of analyst relations Ricarda Rodatus. She joined Oracle from SAP a couple years ago. She tells him which analysts will be in the room and the questions they are likely to ask. Instead of detailed product questions, this group has become interested in the culture change needed for Oracle to sell and support the cloud, she tells him.

Business Insider

Hurd doesn't do much of a introductory spiel for this group. He just takes questions. He's a bit wary of this crowd and tells them so, joking to them that analysts are always a 'tough crowd' and that a 50-minute grilling 'is exhausting' which gets a big laugh.

Business Insider

In truth, he's feeling good about Oracle's cloud strategy and its growth and can easily answer their questions about its products, plans, and culture change.

Business Insider

One big surprise for me: CEOs aren't given any time to eat or take bio-breaks. At nearly 1 o'clock, with no real breakfast (I grabbed a small muffin at the HR panel), I'm hungry so I finally sneak a piece of chicken from the analyst's buffet. But that means I'm eating when he finishes his talk and ...

Business Insider

... they all run out of the room immediately to the next thing. I was left scrambling to grab my stuff and running to catch up. Hurd has not eaten anything all day. I'm lucky I haven't been drinking too much coffee, so I don't need my own bio break.

Business Insider

The big event on this day is Larry Ellison's keynote. About an hour before it begins, we head backstage where an army of Oracle people are working behind the scenes, such as these people handling the online streaming of the conference. Backstage security is tight. At one point, I fall just a few steps behind Hurd and two security people stop me. My badge doesn't give me access to backstage. My PR companion has to fetch someone with authority to let me through.

Business Insider

There are loads of people working back here. There's a crew that work on graphics, and crews that monitor all the tech ...

Business Insider

..and there's an IT team. Streaming a live keynote to millions of people around the world is no small feat.

Business Insider

There's also a backstage office for executives, their support staff, the marketing team, and a few special VIPs.

Business Insider

Food and snacks for the execs are in this room but Hurd doesn't get a chance to eat right away. People need to talk to him before he heads on stage to introduce the pre-keynote speaker, Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka.

Business Insider

All the top Oracle execs have a dedicated space in this room where they can plug in and work if they need to.

Business Insider

Larry Ellison has his own private dressing room next door. It is set up with everything he needs to practice his keynote and his live demos. I never saw him backstage, although I caught a quick glance of Hurd's co-CEO Safra Catz as she dashed in and out of the executive offices.

Business Insider

We do run into Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka backstage before his keynote. Some people are still shocked at how close a partner he is with Oracle these days. He led the development of the competitive HANA database at Oracle's arch enemy competitor, SAP, before taking this CEO job a few years ago. He's known industry wide as a nice guy and he's friendly with the folks at Oracle, including CMO Judy Sim, who's posing with him here.

Business Insider
Oracle chief marketing officer Judy Sim and Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka

I get to take a sneak peak of the main stage. Here's the view from the stage as people are starting to filter in. Thousands of people will soon fill this room for Ellison's keynote.

Business Insider

However, some of them prefer to watch it in giant screens set up outside, and are starting to line up out there.

Oracle

Behind me on stage is the world's largest LCD screen. It's so big and impressive that when Larry Ellison first turned around and saw it during his keynote he exclaimed, 'Cool! I've got to get one of these for my house.' The crowd laughed.

Business Insider

Because I'm with the CEO entourage today, I'm in the reserved seating in the front rows. They even printed a sign with my name, 'Julie Bort.'

Business Insider

Backstage, I've also got my 'own' office where I can plug in and work quietly. I try that for a few minutes but ...

Business Insider

... it's way more fun in the main backstage office, where I can watch the live keynote and...

Business Insider

... where I run into Oracle luminaries like long-time board member Ray Bingham and Oracle's chief corporate architect Edward Screven, who reports to Larry Ellison. If Ellison didn't have the title of CTO, Screven probably would. Both of them are very nice and chat with me.

Business Insider
Oracle board member Ray Bingham, Business Insider's Julie Bort, Oracle's chief architect Edward Screven

Bingham tells me the story of how Ellison got him to join the board in 2002. Back in the early 1990's Bingham worked for Cadence Design Systems. Ellison was on Cadence's board and the Cadence CEO was on Oracle's board. But after two exhaustive reviews by consultants, Bingham's IT team recommended that Cadence buy SAP's financial ERP software, not Oracle's. The two CEOs quit each other's board over it. But Ellison apparently held no grudge: a few years later, he reached out to Bingham to join Oracle's board. Bingham was so impressed with the olive branch he accepted.

Oracle

Bingham also tells me this little-known fact about Larry Ellison. Despite his industry-wide reputation for being hard-nosed, he never loses his cool, never yells -- even during sensitive conversations like executive compensation -- is always calm and respectful.

Business Insider

Edward Screven tells me this little-known fact about Larry Ellison: he's a great listener, even when someone disagrees. As long as the other person's viewpoint is backed up with facts, research and data, Ellison will hear it out. Screven also mentions that Hurd is known around the office for his legendary memory for figures. In meetings, Hurd will rattle off all kinds of relevant stats, from months or years ago.

When Ellison's keynote is about to begin, all members of everyone's entourage find our seats. Hurd and Catz are in the front row and they share a quick moment before Ellison comes on stage. Catz once said that the three of them have 'so much fun' working together.

Business Insider

Ellison delivers a keynote that is mostly all about why Oracle thinks its cloud is better than Amazon's. Amazon has lately been trying to get Oracle's database customers to dump Oracle and move to Amazon's own database. Ellison's keynote is one big 'game on' to Amazon.

When the keynote is over, Hurd has more customer meetings. This small roundtable is a group of customers from Latin America, where Oracle's cloud sales are going well. They question him about Oracle's products and the company's commitment to the region given Brazil's weak economy and the political meltdown in Venezuela. Hurd visits various Latin American countries every few months and assures them of its importance to Oracle.

Business Insider

Hurd also tells customers little tidbits of what is like to run the company. For instance, he and the marketing team were panicked two weeks before the conference when the party headliner, Billy Joel, cancelled. They would have had more than 10,000 people at a party with no music. But because Oracle books these stars for multiple shows, they consider Oracle a great customer. And Billy Joel helped Oracle land Sting and Gwen Stefani to replace him. They even agreed to sing a duet.

Business Insider/Julie Bort
Sting sings at Oracle party, a last-minute replacement for Billy Joel

The afternoon schedule included about 20 minutes of 'downtime' where Mark Hurd answered my questions. We mostly talk about how he revamped the sales force with the 'Class of' program.

Business Insider

Stay tuned for more on Mark Hurd's Class Of program, publishing soon.

Then we dash off to a roundtable with Oracle's Global Business Unit customers. These are US customers in various vertical industries like retail, banking, and so on. It's after 5 o'clock and this is a wine and cheese thing, but Hurd is talking and neither eats nor drinks.

Business Insider

Hurd is joined at this meeting by Robert Weiler, the vice president of GBU. Customers ask them for product roadmaps for specific apps and about options for financing cloud purchases. And, like all the other customers all day long, they want assurances that Oracle is really committed to the cloud and won't shut it down if they move their apps there. Hurd insists that this isn't a 'head fake' from Oracle, that Oracle has already spent billions on data centres and on revamping its applications, with more R&D to come.

Business Insider

This roundtable ended at nearly 7 p.m. Hurd went on to more meetings that night, mostly internal prep him for his next day's schedule. And finally, he had time to eat: a steak dinner with an employee. My day with Hurd ended here. I was plenty tired and hungry myself. Hurd met a total of 496 people in these small, private meetings this week, Oracle tells me. While OpenWorld is the biggest annual Oracle conference, this was a typical sort of day for him. Hurd tells me he does special events like this every few weeks all over the world.

Business Insider

NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos

Want to read a more in-depth view on the trends influencing Australian business and the global economy? BI / Research is designed to help executives and industry leaders understand the major challenges and opportunities for industry, technology, strategy and the economy in the future. Sign up for free at research.businessinsider.com.au.