Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Seven Questions About Larry Ellison and the America’s Cup With Author Julian Guthrie

At one time or another, you may have heard that Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison is kind of into sailing.

Having secured the America’s Cup in Spain in 2010, Ellison’s Team Oracle USA is defending it later this year in San Francisco. On Monday, Team New Zealand secured the right to proceed to the final round of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series. The final round of races will start on Aug. 6, and the winner will face Oracle for the America’s Cup itself, in a series of races that begin on Sept. 7.

If you haven’t been following the steadily building drama surrounding Ellison’s quest first to win the America’s Cup and then defend it, you’re missing an epic tale that crosses the world of technology and sport into a maelstrom of a story that’s suitable for the big screen, one that contains lots of pulse-pounding moments.

But first it has been told in a book. I recently sat down in New York with Julian Guthrie, author of “The Billionaire and the Mechanic.” I learned a lot about sailing, and a lot more about Larry Ellison. Some highlights from our conversation:.

AllThingsD: What prompted you to write about Larry and sailing and the America’s Cup?

Julian Guthrie: I had learned about Larry’s unlikely partnership with Norbert Bajurin, who is the mechanic of this story — he’s the Commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club. It used to be a working-class boating club on the San Francisco waterfront. I was less interested in the America’s Cup, and more in the partnership between these two men.

They seem really different, and yet you write about this fascinating partnership. How does that work?

Here’s Larry, who’s one of the richest people in the world, and Norbert owns a radiator shop and tends to favor powerboats. I don’t think they’re that dissimilar, except for net worth. Larry says it well about Norbert at one point in the book: Norbert has a radiator shop, and Larry has a computer shop. Both have humble beginnings, both had overbearing, non-supportive fathers. Both are trying to make a mark on the world. One of the themes of the book is the mark that Larry has sought to leave and has left on the world. But also it’s about Norbert, and the mark that Norbert wants to leave, and the slice of the American dream that he has sought.

What are some of the turning points in the story?

It’s not so much about Larry Ellison as the vanquishing hero going off and conquering all to win the America’s Cup. He’s the guy who fails at the America’s Cup twice, in very costly, very emotionally draining attempts, first in 2003 and then again in 2007. So there are real down points. The low point of the book is in 2007, when he’s lost a second time, and someone asks him if it was worth it to spend $100 million to win the America’s Cup. He says “I don’t know, I’ve never won the America’s Cup, but it’s not worth $100 million to lose it.”

Did he think about quitting?

He did think about it. He was called a chump. He did some soul-searching. He thought long and hard about the process after losing the second time.

What changed?

He learned that Russell Coutts, who’s now the winningest skipper in America’s Cup history, was a free agent, and that he could hire him. That was the starting point. He had hired the wrong guy in the first two attempts, a skilled sailor named Chris Dixon, who caved in the clutch. Then he read about the cup defender, another billionaire, named Ernesto Bertarelli, who won the cup for Switzerland in 2003 and 2007. He comes back with a set of rules for the 33rd America’s Cup that Larry thought were outrageous, and so he was motivated by that. And then he was motivated to come up with a secret weapon, a sailboat that had never been seen before. It was the USA 17 for the 2010 America’s Cup. He called it his Black Pterodactyl, and it looks imposing. Larry’s not a quitter. He’s obsessive. He wanted to win it. And it was much harder than he thought. But ultimately it worked.

Larry seems to be in a phase of mending certain fences and bringing an end to certain feuds he has had of late. We saw him make up with Marc Benioff of recently, and even with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, too. What do you think about that?

He says some interesting things in the book about Salesforce. For Larry, it’s all about Oracle. Oracle is really in his marrow. It’s his real legacy. Personal relationships don’t matter so much in the advancement of Oracle. I know Benioff a little bit. I don’t think it was that big a feud. Larry is the first person to set something like that aside if it advances Oracle in some way. Any personal issues they might have would be gone in a snap.

Have you got movie options out? And if so, who will play Larry?

We do. We just finalized the details on the movie deal. I asked Larry who should play him, and he said he wants Robert Downey Jr. For Norbert, people like to suggest Owen Wilson.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus