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Larry Ellison talked about a long hike with Steve Jobs in USC's commencement speech

The decision to save Apple came in the summer of 1995 in the Santa Cruz mountains.


Oracle Chairman and CTO Larry Ellison gave the commencement speech at the University of Southern California today, and told an interesting anecdote about his best friend, Apple's late founder Steve Jobs.

It was during a long hike in Castle Rock State Park near Los Gatos, Calif., in 1995, one of what Ellison said was "a thousand walks" that punctuated their 30-year friendship. "If there was something that Steve wanted to talk about, and there always was, we'd go for a walk," he said.

On this walk, Ellison and Jobs talked about ways they might together regain control of Apple. At the time, Jobs was the CEO of Next, the computer company he founded after being pushed out of Apple, and of Pixar, the animation company he later sold to Disney.

At the time, Apple was in "severe distress," Ellison said, and had faltered badly after Jobs's exit years earlier. People wondered if the company would survive. "It was all too painful to watch and stand by and do nothing. So the purpose of that particular hike through the Santa Cruz mountains on that particular day was to discuss taking over Apple Computer."

Ellison's idea was to buy Apple and immediately make Jobs CEO. It made sense. Apple was worth only about $5 billion at the time, and, as Ellison said, "We both had really good credit, and I had already arranged to borrow all the money. All Steve had to do was say yes."

Jobs proposed what Ellison called "a more circuitous route." He would persuade Apple to acquire Next, and then join Apple's board. "Over time the board would recognize that Steve was the right guy to lead the company." As we all know, that's exactly what happened the following year.

"I said okay. That might work," Ellison said. "But Steve, if we don't buy Apple, how are we going to make any money?"

Ellison went on: "Steve stopped walking and turned toward me. We were facing each other and he put he left hand on my right shoulder and his right hand on my left shoulder."

Jobs then said to Ellison: "Larry, this is why it's so important that I'm your friend. You don't need any more money. ... I'm not doing this for the money, I don't want to get paid. If I do this I need to do this standing on the moral high ground."

Ellison retorted: "Well, that just might be the most expensive real estate on Earth."

But Ellison knew that he had lost the argument. Jobs, he said, made up his mind, right then and there on that hike, how he was going "to save Apple his way," Ellison said.

After Jobs was CEO of Apple again — interim CEO initially — Ellison joined Apple's board. And from that board seat he watched Jobs "build the most valuable company on Earth."

"The lesson here is very clear to me. Steve was right. After a certain point, it can't be about the money. After a certain point you can't spend it no matter how hard you try. I know, I've tried hard."

The anecdote about this particular Jobs-Ellison conversation is in Walt Isaacson's biography of Jobs. However, that book says it took place during a Christmas vacation to Hawaii in late 1996, and not on a hike more than a year earlier. Either way, it's interesting to hear Ellison tell it in his own words.

Ellison gave the commencement speech after making a $200 million gift to fund a cancer research center at USC. Ellison is close with a USC medical doctor, Dr. David B. Agus, who was involved in treating the pancreatic cancer that eventually took Jobs's life. Agus also treated Jack Kemp, the onetime U.S. senator who sat on Oracle's board, as well as a relative of Ellison's who is a judge in Chicago.

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