Trump Team Talked to Oracle’s Safra Catz About an Administration Post

The CEO’s relationship with the White House has brought scrutiny in Silicon Valley.

When Tim Cook, Sheryl Sandberg, Jeff Bezos and other high-profile technology chiefs sat down with Donald Trump after the election, there was a less familiar face in their midst: Safra Catz.

"I’m CEO of Oracle," she said, speaking immediately after Cook during the widely covered meeting in December. "We are looking forward to helping."

Catz -- three seats away from Trump, separated only by investor Peter Thiel and Cook-- had arrived early that day for "other meetings," she told a reporter at the time.

The previous month, the Trump's inner circle had shown interest in Catz, and spoken to her about the positions of U.S. Trade Representative and the Director of National Intelligence, according to people familiar with the matter. While she didn't take a formal job, she assisted in the run-up to the inauguration, sitting on the executive committee of the transition team and penning a column for The Hill in support of Steve Mnuchin, the future treasury secretary. Oracle Corp. declined to comment and did not make Catz available for this story.

Oracle is one of the largest business software companies in the world, boasting a market valuation that puts it ahead of Walt Disney Co., Home Depot Inc. and PepsiCo Inc., but Catz, 55, has never been a household name. Mark Hurd, her co-CEO and the former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, has a higher profile. Catz is more private, even as she's been instrumental in Oracle's surge in acquisitions and now a new push into cloud services. Yet her burgeoning relationship with Trump has earned her more notice and, in an industry that remains largely opposed to the current administration, some pointed criticism inside and outside of Oracle.

"Silicon Valley tends to skew a bit more liberal on the whole," said Daniel Korschun, an associate professor at the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University. "She's pushing the boundaries of maybe where the company is able to go, given the employee base."

Catz didn't campaign for Trump, and early on, she donated to his Republican rival, Marco Rubio. But once Trump won, Catz adapted. She made her way to Trump Tower in New York to visit the president-elect fewer than 10 days after the election, on the same day as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. 

Back home, such pilgrimages were exceedingly unpopular. Trump has galvanized many tech employees and executives. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticized him before the election and Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman -- a former Republican candidate for governor -- encouraged people to vote for Hillary Clinton. Since Trump took office, the hostility hasn’t gone away. Uber Technologies Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick was initially on Trump's business advisory council, but after a backlash, he stepped down. Workers at other companies have staged protests, and many tech companies signed two legal briefs opposing the president's executive orders on immigration.

Oracle was conspicuously absent from the opposition. This hasn't gone unnoticed by employees. Hundreds signed an online petition drawn up for employees opposing the order, arguing it was negative for U.S. business and could harm recruitment.

Unlike some tech chiefs who sent notes to employees about meetings they were having with Trump, Catz didn't widely communicate to workers during her early days of working with the administration. That rubbed some employees the wrong way. George Polisner, a longtime employee, who had recently worked on cloud services, quit and posted an angry resignation letter to LinkedIn. Another employee, a sales associate with declined to be named because the matter was private, also recently quit Oracle, partly because of concerns about the approach on immigration under Trump.

Yet these issues are personal for Catz. She moved to the U.S. as a child, and has been outspoken about immigration in the past. "As an immigrant myself, this kind of drives me crazy," she said five years ago, discussing the limited number of visas issued to foreign workers. “There are so many immigrant-led success stories in the United States and the fact that it's gotten so much harder for educated folks to stay here is really unfortunate."

Safra Catz arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 14, 2016.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Catz was born in Israel, the child of Holocaust survivors. Her father fought in the 1967 war, while her mother protected the family in an air-raid shelter, according to an obituary for Catz's mother that appeared in The Boston Globe. The family later moved to Boston, where her father joined the physics faculty at the University of Massachusetts.

Catz earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She later joined Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, an investment bank.

She started at Oracle in 1999 as senior vice president, working her way up to chief financial officer several years later. In 2014, she and Hurd were named co-CEOs. Catz has been key to Oracle's aggressive acquisition strategy, helping shape the company's investment in software that allows businesses to manage day-to-day functions, such as human resources tasks.

“Oracle will be left in the dust -- I’ve now heard it probably half a dozen times,” Catz said, referring to critics in a 2013 call with analysts. “And each time we look in it, we continue on. We persevere."

Recently she helped shepherd a deal for NetSuite Inc., the cloud-based software company, for more than $9 billion. There was optimism the deal would go forward without much disruption until T. Rowe Price, a major NetSuite shareholder, threatened to hold up the purchase, demanding a higher price. Catz didn't budge. "Every shareholder's going to have to make his own decision, but we believe that is the price," she said in an interview in September. In November, the deal closed at the original price: $109 per share.

Catz's blunt negotiating style was on display when she testified during a trial last year pitting Oracle against Alphabet Inc. Oracle sued the search giant for $9 billion, alleging it inappropriately used Oracle software for its Android devices.  

"I was at a Bat Mitzvah… and Kent Walker, their general counsel, came up to me and said, 'You know, Safra, Google's a really special company, and the old rules don't apply to us,'" she recalled on the stand. "I immediately said, 'Thou shalt not steal.' It's an oldie but a goodie."

Oracle nevertheless lost the case and is now in the process of appealing.

Catz's toughness has served her well amid the palace intrigue at Oracle. For years, she's been a confidant to Oracle's founder and longtime CEO Larry Ellison. In 2005, before Hurd's arrival, Ellison said he viewed Catz as his successor. Ellison left the CEO job in 2014 but didn't leave Oracle. He’s the executive chairman and the chief technology officer, and still leads the company. 

The leaders sometimes disagree, and Catz is not always on the winning side. About a year ago, a group of Oracle's top leaders met to discuss the potential acquisition of Ravello Systems, people familiar with the matter said. Catz pushed back against the deal while Thomas Kurian, president of product development, disagreed, arguing for it. There was heated discussion, and eventually Ellison sided with Kurian. The purchase cost about $500 million.

As one of the few women CEOs in tech, Catz has been speaking out about getting more girls interested in engineering. Her success is a testament to the kind of effectiveness and tenacity it takes to be a female executive, said Joan Williams, a professor at the the University of California Hastings College of the Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

"The fact that we have Safra Catz and Sheryl Sandberg doesn't mean that women are accepted in the Valley," Williams said. "It means that Safra Catz and Sheryl Sandberg are twice as competent and more politically savvy than everybody but God."

 

Catz has been in active in Washington for years, which suggests her cultivation of Trump may involve business as much as politics. Four years ago, she joined the executive council of Technet, the key industry trade group. She had at least one meeting with former President Barack Obama: Along with other tech executives, she attended a White House session to discuss immigration reform, taxes and creating more high-skilled workers for companies.

Catz has been donating money to politicians since her earliest days at Oracle. She gave a donation in 1999 to U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo, a Democrat in California-- and would make additional gifts more than 10 times over the following years. She donated to  John Kerry, when he was in the U.S. Senate; Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, and Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. She's also given to Republicans like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Catz has good reason to keep close tabs on the White House. Trump has considered a one-time 10 percent repatriation tax to return funds held abroad. That could hugely affect Oracle, which has more than $50 billion overseas, in cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities, according to a recent filing. Bringing some of that money back to the U.S. would be a boon for the company-- and might just be worth the rancor Catz has unleashed by staying close to the Trump administration. 
--With Jennifer Jacobs

(Corrects Catz's educational background in the 13th paragraph.)
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