Larry Ellison’s surreal year

October 29, 2010, 5:50 PM UTC

Larry Ellison is never far from the public eye, yet it’s hard to deny that in 2010 the 66-year-old billionaire is having quite the moment. Even for him.

Consider Ellison’s winning streak:

* Oracle’s (ORCL) acquisition of Sun closed in January, a relatively long eight months after Oracle announced it. In  short order, however, Oracle’s strategy of owning a hardware company with some storied software under the hood went from being ridiculed — ‘Why would Oracle want to sell hardware?’ — to making perfect sense to everyone in the industry, particularly archrival IBM (IBM) and bizarro frenemy Hewlett-Packard (HP).

* In February, Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing team re-captured the America’s Cup, and he triumphantly escorted the trophy home to San Francisco, where he presented it at a glittering ceremony at City Hall. Not only did Ellison spare no expense in winning the Cup, he then magnanimously announced plans to lower the barriers for the next challenger for the Cup while promising to promote yachting with innovative approaches to television coverage and supportive pre-America’s Cup regattas in various cities around the world.

* Yachting isn’t Ellison’s only sporting interest. Last year he bought the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in southern California as well as the BNP Paribas Open tournament that’s played there. This year he made an unsuccessful run at the Golden State Warriors basketball team too. He’s also been adding to his real estate empire, cobbling together multiple expensive beachfront tracts in Malibu as well as picking up an historic property in Newport, R.I.

* Then there is Oracle’s performance. The  company gets increasingly more profitable each year. It’s stock is up nearly 20% in 2010, handily besting the Nasdaq composite index. Ellison cleverly and brazenly picked up Mark Hurd as a co-president when HP discarded its CEO. In one fell swoop Ellison dinged a competitor and installed an experienced executive who could step in as Oracle’s CEO if something were to happen to Ellison.

Out of the limelight, it’s been an interesting year for Ellison as well. Though it hasn’t been reported anywhere and not even the chatteratti in Silicon Valley are gossiping about it, Ellison and his wife of six years, Melanie Craft, were divorced late last month, according to papers filed in a San Mateo county court. It was Ellison’s fourth marriage, and its dissolution appears to be as amicable as they come: In the middle of the proceedings this spring Ellison’s wife accompanied him to the America’s Cup victory celebration, where I interviewed him. She also sat in the front row with him at the recent Oracle Open World, the company’s annual partner extravaganza.

Ellison has shown more of his philanthropic self of late as well. When Warren Buffett called Ellison to support the campaign he and Bill Gates had begun to convince rich people to commit to giving away their wealth [Read: “The $600 billion challenge” on], Ellison complied. He also wrote this brief and slightly odd testimonial:

Many years ago, I put virtually all of my assets into a trust with the intent of giving away at least 95% of my wealth to charitable causes.  I have already given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical research and education, and I will give billions more over time.  Until now, I have done this giving quietly – because I have long believed that charitable giving is a personal and private matter.  So why am I going public now?  Warren Buffett personally asked me to write this letter because he said I would be “setting an example” and “influencing others” to give.  I hope he’s right.

All this obviously has been prelude to Ellison’s repeated public comments in the last three months centered around Hewlett-Packard’s board of directors and Oracle’s upcoming litigation with software competitor SAP. He has emailed the New York Times and the Financial Times to defend Hurd and knock SAP. He has issued late-at-night statements to the press. Next week or the week after it’s also likely he’ll take the stand in a federal court in Oakland as his own company’s witness against SAP.

It has been quite a year for Ellison. And it’s not over.

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