He rises in the dark and settles in front of his home computer by 5:30 AM. He has markets to monitor, messages to send, customers to calm. His company is a leader in sales-force-automation software. His customers include some of the best-known companies around: Andersen Consulting, Cisco Systems, Dow Chemical.
He put his company together with his own money, along with help from some super-wealthy angels, notably Charles Schwab, the discount brokerage king, and Phil White, CEO at Informix, Oracle’s chief competitor. No venture capital, though. He doesn’t believe in escort services.
Until 18 months ago, most of his people worked for stock. He rented a ramshackle brick building in East Palo Alto and scavenged for furniture. He knew exactly how he wanted to build his business. It was part of his role as the leader of the outfit bearing his name. Tom Siebel, 44, chairman, president, and CEO of Siebel Systems Inc., knew what it took to succeed. Now it was time to teach his people.
When his company went public on June 27, 1996, barely three years after he founded it, the investment bankers set an IPO price of $17 per share. The stock doubled by the end of the day — and was trading as high as $48 per share within three months. At that price, the company was worth more than $700 million. Its founder had a personal net worth of $280 million. He’d made true believers of the 150 people working with him. He’d turned 40 of them into millionaires.
At 7:30 AM a buzzer goes off in the house. Crunch time. An electric gate opens. A car pulls into the driveway. His trainer steps out.
“I hate this time,” Siebel says. “But my goal is to get into the best shape of my life.” To that end, Siebel hired a fitness coach and “incentivized” him: “If I say by the end of three months I want to be able to do 50 pushups, add an inch to my chest, three-quarters of an inch to my biceps and my thighs, that’s a goal for him. Then we look at the results. If the goals have been met, he gets a bonus.”
Then what happens? “We raise the bar.”
Siebel’s incentive in business and life, he says, is to keep raising the bar. To take personal responsibility for generating value. But there’s another force that drives him: “I hear Larry Ellison is saying he wants to put me out of business.”
Siebel has it right there in his email, one of a hundred messages he reads and disposes of on any given day, but one that has been preserved. It was sent by an Oracle insider, not a mole, just someone who thought he ought to know.
If Larry Ellison wants a war, Tom Siebel, former group vice president for Oracle USA, is ready. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Tom Siebel’s success without recognizing Larry Ellison’s role in shaping it. Siebel bristles at any comparisons with his former boss, but almost everyone who knows both men makes those comparisons — emphatically. People cite their tightly wound determination, their lean-and-hungry physical demeanors, their nanosecond-quick learning curves.
“There are no similarities,” Siebel protests. “Larry’s smarter than I am.” He waits, seeing how that plays out. “I don’t need a lot of cars, a villa in the south of France. There is nothing in this proposition that would change my lifestyle no matter how many zeros you add. I think Larry is into adding zeros.”
Siebel joined Oracle in 1984 after collecting three degrees from the University of Illinois and selling for IBM. Within a year he was named the company’s top salesperson, worldwide. In 1990 he took a leave of absence and never went back. “I got tired of the win-at-all-cost attitude,” he says.
“I was tired of wrestling the company for commitments to customer satisfaction. I had given just about everything.”
Siebel left less than a year before the crash of 1990-91, when Oracle’s market value cratered from $3.7 billion to $700 million. “We were flying beyond the speed limit with no gauges on the plane,” says Siebel, himself a pilot, as is Ellison. “I could see the crash coming.” He took several million dollars in stock options with him.
He and his wife Stacey, a former Oracle sales rep, skied and traveled and set no agenda for getting back into the game. But then he got a call from a Silicon Valley headhunter. A small employee-owned multimedia company in Palo Alto was desperate for a CEO. The first big thing Siebel did when he took the job was change the name of the company from Cayenne Systems to Gain Technology. Then he formed an alliance with Sybase, the big database software outfit. Then he engineered a merger with Sybase. All in 18 months.
“We distributed $105 million to 110 employees,” he says pridefully. “People who had been living in two-bedroom apartments in the East Bay were now buying homes in Palo Alto.” Siebel left Gain, taking more than $10 million with him, and wrote a personal check to start his ultimate quest — and to mark his final separation from Oracle.
That was July 1993. Last summer, Siebel Systems moved from East Palo Alto to a five-story office building in San Mateo. The most prominent landmark outside the windows of Siebel headquarters is the cylindrical office complex housing. . .Oracle.
“Why would he want to put me out of business?” Siebel asks. His dark blue eyes radiate intensity. His face is lined prematurely. “We don’t really compete. I can’t see that we’ll ever be a threat.”
But there are ways to compete with his former mentor, to be a threat, without going head-on. Being a success, in markets of his choosing, in a style that’s right for him, conjures a certain business esthetic that Siebel knows has captured Ellison’s attention.
“In the early days of Oracle, we were just about making money,” Siebel says. “Here we are in the process of building a great place to work. We want to be known for our high-energy, vibrant people, and I want to be known for giving them the tools to excel professionally.”
Still, money is never far from the surface. Great wealth creates great responsibilities. The tensions in Siebel’s life — the grip his work holds over everything else — have not lessened. If anything, they are greater now. It’s his company, his success, his wealth to lose.
“I’ve been put in a position I’ve never dreamed of,” he says. “I’ve got to conduct myself accordingly. There’s pressure. But we don’t walk around here saying, ‘We’re going to be rich.’ This is my idea of a good time. I visit with customers. They’re using products with my name on them. I want to be doing this when I’m 65. I want the very same job.”