CEO showdown: Apotheker vs. Ellison vs. Palmisano

What if you put Oracle's Larry Ellison and IBM's Sam Palimisano to the same test HP's Léo Apotheker endured last week?

HP CEO Léo Apotheker had his long-awaited coming out party a week ago. A quick scan of Google News will tell you that reviews of Apotheker's performance were mixed. Some of the criticism, including that offered by InfoWorld's Bill Snyder, was tough.

As a new CEO who had been forced by an Oracle lawsuit to lie low, Apotheker was stepping into the harshest possible spotlight. It made me wonder: What if you put the CEOs from HP's two most direct competitors, IBM and Oracle, under the same intense scrutiny?

[ Check out our exclusive 45-minute interview with HP CEO Leo Apotheker. | Download InfoWorld's Cloud Services Deep Dive Report by contributing editor David Linthicum. ]

I asked the InfoWorld Test Center, but unfortunately, CEO benchmarking of this type is not yet possible. Still, I figured it was worth comparing Apotheker's performance against recent ones by Larry Ellison and Sam Palmisano.

The amazing Larry show

In Ellison's case, you'd be hard-pressed to find a public statement from him this year on a topic other than sailing or tennis. Even on the most recent Oracle quarterly earnings call in December, he began with saying, "The important thing around here is sailing, but right behind that is software and hardware."

For something more substantive, you have to go back to Oracle OpenWorld 2010, where Ellison offered a lackluster presentation on cloud computing -- far less entertaining than his infamous tirade ridiculing cloud computing a year before. Then there was Ellison's email to the Wall Street Journal in October, in which he professed to be "speechless" in reaction to the appointment of former SAP head Apotheker to HP CEO. "HP employees, customers, partners, and shareholders will suffer," he ranted. "The HP board needs to resign en masse ... right away. The madness must stop."

He even made fun of SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner's "wild Einstein hair."

Did this clowning around harm Oracle? Not at all. People expect these kinds of antics from Ellison. More to the point, Oracle has been doing well. Not only did it win its $1.3 billion lawsuit against SAP and catch Mark Hurd on the rebound from HP, new software licenses are up more than 20 percent year over year and Oracle stock has been on a steady climb since September.

With that kind of performance, it doesn't matter that Oracle's confusing Fusion initiative has taken so long to bear fruit or that former Sun customers are livid over Oracle's miserable hardware tech support. Ellison doesn't have to answer for anything.

So he doesn't. Tennis, anyone?

Palmisano on top

If Ellison plays the 66-year-old bad boy, then Palmisano, seven years his junior, is the epitome of the steady hand. A relaxed presenter and an IBM lifer, Palmisano was responsible for making IBM Global Services what it is today -- one reason Lou Gerstner handed him the reins in 2002.

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