Hawaiians Wish Bill Gates Had Bought Lanai, Not Larry Ellison

Notes from different corners of the world.
June 27 2012 10:00 AM

The New King of Hawaii

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is buying the island of Lanai. Locals wish Bill Gates had bought it instead.

Larry Ellison
Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.

Photoraph by Stephen Lam/GettyImages.

With just about 3,000 residents living on its 141 square miles of pristine beaches, red dirt roads, and largely undeveloped land, the Hawaiian island of Lanai feels like a small town. It doesn’t even have a traffic light. So when word got out that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was buying 98 percent of the island, news flew fast among Lanaians, who were left wondering what Ellison plans for their community. And indeed, Ellison’s business and personal history suggest he might be uniquely unsuited to ownership of a sleepy island steeped in tradition and studded with native Hawaiian heritage sites. Is Ellison ready to be king of an island that may not want him?

Ellison reportedly owns a home on the island, but—curiously for a place where everyone knows everyone—no one I spoke to knew where it was or said they’ve met Ellison. “I never heard of his name before two days ago,” said 29-year-old Mikala Enfield, an eighth-generation Lanai resident, as she sat stringing leis outside the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center the other day. “I think everybody who has any information on him Googled him two days ago.”

Most of Lanai has been privately owned since the mid-1800s and was used first as a cattle ranch and then as a pineapple planation under Castle & Cooke’s Dole Foods. After Castle & Cooke CEO David Murdock bought the company outright, he moved pineapple production to cheaper overseas locations in 1992 and tried to transition Lanai into a tourist destination. But Murdock’s been steadily losing money on his island investment since then, and rumors of his selling Lanai have circulated for several years.

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There was certainly no love lost between Lanai residents and Murdock, who lobbied for a plan to build a wind farm on the island’s pristine northwest coastline. But will Ellison be any better? The CEO has pledged $10 million toward improving the island’s public utilities and is issuing reassuring messages about his respect for “culture and conservation stewardship of the island.” (Ellison did not respond to a request for comment.)

Lanai native Christine Costales, who works with the University of Hawaii’s Lanai Native Species Recovery Program on the island, said she hopes Ellison is ready to listen to residents. “We want someone who really cares about conservation and stewardship, not just writing things in history,” Costales said. Ellison’s history of conservation includes saving a tennis tournament, pouring millions into winning the America’s Cup sailing race, and filing a lawsuit against his next-door neighbors to get them to cut down their redwoods.

Indeed, Ellison models his Oracle sales strategy after a “take no prisoners” Japanese business style. “The problem with America is that we just have no stomach for competition,” he once admiringly recalled a Japanese executive telling him. “In Japan we believe that our competitors are stealing the rice out of the mouths of our children. In Japan we think anything less than 100 percent market share is not enough.”

Ellison’s used that strategy to make himself the third-richest man in America with a $36 billion fortune. He pursues first place in all that he does. But Lanai may not reward that pursuit, and it’s easy to see him struggling to play the diplomat in tricky island politics where local livelihood depends almost entirely on his decisions.

The question on Lanaians’ minds is: Why did Ellison buy their island? To preserve its way of life or to accelerate development? Mikala Enfield sharply declared that Lanai is “not just a piece of land that you can go make money on.” And she’s right; Ellison isn’t likely to turn a quick profit on a place Murdock lost tens of millions of dollars on each year.

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