On the first Monday after thanksgiving 1994, about 250 people convened in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. The occasion was a memorial service for Bob Miner, who at 52 had died of cancer. He left his wife, Mary, and three kids.
Seventeen years earlier, Miner and his business partner, Larry Ellison, had started a company in the obscure world of database software. The company was called Oracle. It grew furiously, went public in 1986, and became one of the greatest success stories in the history of technology startups. It is now the second-largest independent software company in the world. The only one bigger is Microsoft.
Which is to say that when Bob Miner died, he was a very wealthy man, worth between $300 million and $500 million.
Many of those at the service were wealthy too. They included the leaders of some of the most powerful companies in America, the giants of Silicon Valley. But most of them were Oracle people, unrecognizable except to each other. They, like Miner, had become richer than they thought was possible. Oracle’s runaway success had turned hundreds of its employees into millionaires.
Larry Ellison sat inconspicuously among the crowd he had helped make rich. Jenny Overstreet, Ellison’s administrative assistant, strode to the dais to begin the service. This was an occasion for putting Bob Miner’s achievements into the context of all of their lives. She invited people to share their “Bob stories.” One by one, Miner’s colleagues rose to remind each other that his core was always with his family. He could be counted on for humor and frankness, for his firm center of gravity.
Among the first to testify to that was John Luongo, senior vice president of Oracle International. “Bob was a great counterweight,” he said. “He had his values and was not going to let anything disrupt them. He lived by that rule.”
Then he told a story. It occurred in 1986, not long after Oracle had gone public. Suddenly, Miner was rich. “Bob needed some cash, so he went into a bank and stood in line with everybody else. When he got to the teller, he wrote a check for $500,000 to deposit, and asked for $100 back. The teller was a Russian woman. She threw up her hands and screamed: ‘God I love this country!'” Everyone roared.
The tributes continued for nearly two hours. Finally, Larry Ellison rose to speak. He had presided over Oracle’s growth like a bloodthirsty general ravaging a continent. He had become the richest man in Silicon Valley, one of only six high-tech billionaires, a self-styled business samurai. Acknowledging that the day had been a celebration of his business partner’s life, the CEO offered a postscript to Luongo’s story, giving it a different twist.
Those present that day can quote Ellison almost verbatim: “Here was Bob, worth maybe $300 million, standing there like everyone else. I was amazed. I said, ‘Bob, lines are for other people. You’re a huge success; you don’t have to stand in line anymore. Everything’s changed.”‘
Somehow this version wasn’t as funny. Those who knew Bob Miner knew that nothing about him had changed. That was why they had come to honor him. What had changed was their lives — and that was the uncomfortable truth buried in Ellison’s tale. For most of them, money had changed everything.
Some were still running hard to meet the demands of Oracle’s explosive success. Some were running companies of their own. Some had retired. Some felt freer, others more encumbered. No matter. They had all drunk from the same well. And they were all different.
They were part of a larger change sweeping the country, touching Wall Street brokers, minimill executives, Hollywood screenwriters, Silicon Valley engineers. More people have been getting richer faster than ever. Last year, according to Payment Systems Inc., a market research firm based in Tampa, Florida, 2.7 million households had a net worth of more than $1 million (not including home equity). And for the first time in history, people between the ages of 35 and 54 have overtaken people 60 and older as the fastest growing segment of millionaires.
New wealth is everywhere. The number of millionaires in Austin, Texas doubled last year to nearly 20,500. The number of millionaires in Portland, Oregon exceeds 31,000. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to 67,000 millionaires. This wealth is different from old wealth in an important respect. Success in business today — success on the scale of Oracle or Microsoft or EDS or Wal-Mart — is forged in a crucible of experiences that characterize the specific company: its triumphs and reversals, the values and pressures that define life there.
In this sense, where you succeed is as important as that you succeed. For the Oracle millionaires, coming to terms with their personal success meant coming to terms with the formative years of their business lives. It meant measuring the relationship between money and success, freedom and responsibility.
What follows are intimate stories of four Oracle millionaires, each of whom has been on a different journey since leaving the company. Their experiences offer lessons for anyone in a position to imagine once-unimaginable success.
Pat Dillon (email@example.com) has written about the West Coast Mafia, the war in Nicaragua, and he has shared in the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of “The Last Best Thing” (Simon & Schuster, 1996).