Valentine's day 1997. Mike Seashols, president and CEO of USoft Corporation, is hunched over a computer in his company's Brisbane, California headquarters, when he gets a phone call from his wife Suzanne. "Be home by 7 PM," she commands. "And don't come home sweaty. Shower after you work out."
Seashols, a trim, purposeful 52-year-old who looks 10 years younger, has always been an executive in a hurry. It was true at Oracle, and it's true today. In 1993, Unisys Corp. bankrolled his fledgling client-server software company to the tune of $50 million. Now it has 230 employees and 250 customers — including Microsoft, Compaq, and Sun Microsystems — and is heading for an IPO. But a phone call from Suzanne has a way of changing the pace.
Ten years ago, when Larry Ellison was quoting Japanese CEOs quoting Genghis Khan ("It is not sufficient that I win; others must fail"), and Seashols and his colleagues were building one of the fastest growing technology companies in history, when competition in database software resembled slash-and-burn warfare, obeying a command to "be home by 7 PM" would have been unthinkable.
Unless you were Mike Seashols. Back then, perhaps the only Oracle executive further removed from Genghis Khan was Bob Miner himself. "We never just 'carved out' family time," says Seashols, the father of two sons, 24 and 21. "It was always a priority." Miner, Seashols says, was a man "who lived for his family." He was the young Oracle executive's true north.
Next to his Christian faith, that is. Seashols, a self-described killer competitor, reads the Bible every morning before doing just about anything else, including thinking about the competition. He has made more money than he can possibly spend ("I'm embarrassed by how much"), but spends countless hours in pitched battles to make even more. He is, in other words, someone who runs with the big dogs even as he struggles to maintain his personal center of gravity.
Seashols joined Oracle in 1982 and became the company's vice president of sales and marketing. He had just sold a small computer business that was going nowhere, and had made a nice little nest egg. After paying all his debts, including his mortgage, he netted $80,000.
"I thought, 'Boy, what are we going to do with this?"' he recalls.
As things turned out, $80,000 would be a rounding error. But there was a time in Oracle's history, not long after Seashols joined, when $80,000 was the margin between solvency and ruin. "Larry, Tom Siebel, and I were closing deals just to make payroll," he remembers. "We had no idea how we were going to survive. We just kept fighting. We had to be fast, aggressive. It was a great experience."
He says "great" with the conviction of someone who has just completed a triathlon. It is a badge of honor to describe the pace at which he and his Oracle colleagues worked, the unyielding intensity they imposed on each other, the competitive paranoia they transformed into market domination. "I still have great regard for Larry," says Seashols about the man who eventually fired him.
Surviving Oracle was the defining experience of Mike Seashols's life. And it raised questions he never expected to encounter.
"I remember in 1986, right before we went public, Larry and I were having dinner. He asked, 'What are you going to do with all your money?' I had no idea. My house was paid for. I was driving a new car. I didn't have any needs I could think of. I said something about just wanting to be content. I think that really took him aback."
Eleven years after Oracle went public, making hundreds of people richer than they ever imagined, Mike Seashols, as directed by his wife, walks through the door of the home they have lived in for 27 years. It is in Belmont, a San Francisco Peninsula community hardly synonymous with the opulence associated with Silicon Valley millionaires. Suzanne beckons him upstairs. He follows.
There, in the bedroom, she has set up a table, chairs, dinnerware. She presents the meal. It is the same dinner she first cooked for him when they were dating. Afterward, they pull out old picture albums.
"We went through the chronology of our courtship, our wedding, the early days. And then we came to a photo of me. I guess I was 22," he says. Already, he was a top salesman for IBM.
"I'm leaning against a new Mercedes. I'm wearing a Rolex watch, holding it up, posing. And Suzanne says: 'What do you see?'
"I ticked off everything in the picture. I reminded her that I had said when I hit a certain sales mark, when I earned $30,000, I would consider myself successful. To mark this success, I would buy a Mercedes and a Rolex. The photo reminded me of that."
"But what do you really see?" she asked. And then she answered for him: "Props. That's all they were, props."
Mike Seashols works long and hard in a world filled with people determined to collect as many of those props as they can to affirm their power and success. So why does he do it? Why does he keep working even though he is wealthy enough to devote his days to studying the Bible, traveling with his family, serving his community?
"I want to help the people I work with become successes in every possible way," he says. "The culture of a company starts at the top. It reflects the style of the leader. You have to use humility, create a motivating environment, mentor as well as manage."
They are words the late Bob Miner might have spoken, even during Oracle's most severe ordeals. Yet they bear the stamp of Seashols's personal experiences and his own voice. He pauses. This is important to him. He's making a case for himself, for his principles and the company he is molding to reflect those principles. This is why he keeps working rather than doing the Lord's work full time. This is the Lord's work.
"To suggest I haven't changed would be untrue," he says. "I hope I have changed. I hope to continue to improve as a person. I hope I will learn how to share more in financial terms, career terms, knowledge, exposure to new ideas, the 'footprints in the sand' types of issues that will outlive us all."
There are certain things that don't change, however. Every year, Mike and Suzanne call a meeting with their sons Matt and Peter. Together, they review the family budget and determine how much their annual income exceeds their needs. It is a substantial amount, which is then divided four ways.
"We each allocate our shares according to what we believe in," Seashols says. The beneficiaries have been their church, neighborhood crisis centers, the Salvation Army, environmental causes. The list is long and diverse.
"If there is an argument for accumulating wealth, then this is it," he says. "I don't feel bad at all. I feel contented. It's freeing."
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.