10. Larry Ellison

Oracle co-founder

Benjamin Wachenje
"I'm addicted to winning. The more you win, the more you want to win."

Co-founder and CEO, Oracle Corp.
Born: Aug. 17, 1944, New York City
Education: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (dropped out); University of Chicago (dropped out)

Larry Ellison represents the archetypical American success story: the adopted child who becomes one of the richest people in the world, and who, with his yachts and fighter jets, plays being the billionaire as hard as he worked to become one. What makes Ellison a business revolutionary is the leading role he played in shaping how enterprises use information technology.

His Oracle Corp., the world's largest business software company, has defined big-data and big-business computing as we know it. Its products are used by every one of the 100 largest public companies in the world and by 400,000 other customers in 145 countries. Ellison beat out IBM; swatted away Sybase, Informix, SAP and Siebel Systems; and held Microsoft at bay.

Though born in New York, he was raised in Chicago by his mother's uncle and aunt, who adopted him at 9 months old. After a truculent adolescence and dropping out of two colleges, Ellison headed west, where he wrote code for tech companies such as Amdahl and Ampex.

His epiphany came from an early research paper on relational databases by Ted Codd, an IBM scientist. Big Blue saw scant commercial potential in Codd's ideas about a structured query language. But Ellison saw plenty in it. He joined up with Bob Miner and Ed Oates, with whom he had worked at Ampex, to develop an SQL relational database management system.

Their first commercial suite of SQL products, called Oracle 2 (after a CIA contract code-named Oracle that the three had worked on together), was released in 1979.

In 1981, IBM started to develop commercial SQL software, threatening Oracle with potentially crushing competition. But IBM created its SQL products only for its own mainframe database servers. It ignored the emerging market for relational database management systems that ran on the wave of cheaper microcomputers starting to surge through business and government.

Oracle and other newcomers, such as Sybase and Informix, rushed to fill the vacuum. Oracle's corporate sales doubled annually for seven years. Ellison took the company public in 1986.

The gung-ho growth screeched to a halt in 1990. Oracle posted its first loss after restating earnings twice and revealing that it had front-loaded its sales accounting. The company's market valuation fell by four-fifths. With Oracle teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, Ellison tore Oracle apart over the next two years to salvage it.

Oracle flourished for the rest of that decade, thanks to Oracle 7's success with banks, airlines, carmakers and retailers. Ellison's vision in being among the first to provide Internet-ready business applications gave the company an advantage in the "softwars" against Informix and Sybase—until the rise of Microsoft's SQL Server in the late 1990s and IBM's acquisition of Informix in 2001 triggered a new three-way fight.

Ellison set out to add muscle, spending billions on makers of software for managing data, identity, retail inventory and logistics. He bought PeopleSoft for $10.3 billion and trumped German rival SAP in a bidding war for retail software management maker Retek in 2005.

He paid $5.8 billion for Siebel Systems the following year, and $3.3 billion for business intelligence software provider Hyperion Solutions the year after that. In 2010, he outbid both Hewlett-Packard and IBM to snag Sun Microsystems for $7.4 billion, getting control of the open-source MySQL database.

Oracle was left on top of the heap, offering everything from servers and storage, to database and middleware, through applications and into the cloud. Ellison was the highest-paid executive of the 2000s, with total compensation of $1.84 billion. During that decade Oracle's market capitalization nearly tripled, to $98 billion.

As businesses increasingly connect people, devices and things, and derive new products and services from harvesting the data from transactions, Oracle is in the catbird seat. "If the Internet turns out not to be the future of computing, we're toast," Ellison said in 1998. "But if it is, we're golden." He called it right.

Larry Ellison: Lifelong highlights

  • Derives family name from his adoptive father's point of entry to the U.S., Ellis Island
  • "Races sailboats, flies planes, and plays tennis and guitar," according to his corporate biography
  • Achieved long-held desire to win America's Cup, international sport's oldest trophy, in 2010 and retained trophy with a spectacular comeback in 2013
  • Required major surgery in 1990s for injuries suffered while body surfing and mountain biking
  • Owns a collection of 16th-century Samurai armor and weaponry; modeled California estate after 16th-century Japanese imperial palace
  • Paid $300 million for 98 percent of island of Lanai, Hawaii, in 2012
  • Daughter Megan is an Oscar-nominated film producer ("American Hustle," "Zero Dark Thirty," "True Grit")

Read MoreFULL LIST: CNBC FIRST 25

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