The Billionaire and the Mechanic

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bookOne of the books I took for pool-side holiday reading this year was The Billionaire and the Mechanic – a book recounting the Americas Cup, Larry Ellison’s attempts to win it, and the car radiator mechanic that he teamed up with to ultimately succeed in his quest.

The book appealed to me in part because of my profession – Oracle Applications software – but also because I used to sail when I was younger; an interest that was recently re-energised by the 2013 Americas Cup – remarkable because of the dramatic manner in which it was won, but also because the vastly improved TV coverage and graphical overlays which made it a much more engaging sport for those watching at home.

(Personal note: When I was young I used to sail against Sir Ben Ainslie, the British Olympic yachtsman whose switch onto the Oracle boat when they were 7 points behind was at least part catalyst for the comeback to eventually winning 9-8.)

On to the book …

I found the book a compelling read for a number of reasons. Given the wealth at Larry’s disposal he’s probably used to quick success in each new field that he enters, however all the Americas Cup team owners are billionaires – and most of them had many Americas Cup campaigns of experience already – so Larry really was the under-dog. The author had excellent access to Larry so it was interesting to see Larry’s approach to dealing with setbacks – for example, when some of the other owners attempted underhand political tactics to change the rules and make it almost impossible for another boat other than theirs to win.


So what did I learn about Larry?

  • He really hates losing, but even when things aren’t going well he still trusts his team and doesn’t feel the need to wade in and micro-manage. He delegates decisions to team members and then trusts their judgement, even – in one memorable case – when he doesn’t agree with the decision himself.
  • I loved the way that when looking for a club to partner with he eschewed San Francisco’s highbrow St Francis Yacht Club in favour of the ‘blue collar’ Golden Gate Yacht Club (whose car radiator mechanic commodore features heavily in the book).
  • Over the course of repeated attempts to win the competition Larry carefully assembles the best team, and some of the most interesting parts of the book are the battles with brilliant but flawed team members.
  • A significant portion of the book is given to Larry’s relationship with Steve Jobs, and it describes the frequent walks that the neighbours used to take together and how Larry offered to buy Apple for Steve (to aid his return). It also discusses Larry’s partnership with Steve’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs and their plans to build a high school in San Francisco.
  • It also mentions Larry’s friendship with Rafael Nadal. When Larry asked Rafael about his attitude to winning – Rafael said that he “doesn’t enjoy the winning, but does enjoy the fight. If you enjoy the fight then the winning will come.”
  • The book also documents Larry’s quest to improve the Americas Cup competition itself, by bringing the boats close to the shore rather than being ‘moving dots on the horizon’, introducing spending caps for teams and equalising the team’s boats, changing the races to make them simpler and shorter races, plus the Emmy Winning LiveLine system making it more accessible and understandable for non-sailors.

In summary, a very enjoyable read that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in Larry and/or sailing.