HONOLULU — Buying an inhabited Hawaiian island may sound extreme, even for a guy known for flaunting his fortune like a playboy — driving fancy cars, wooing beautiful women, flying his own jet and spending $200 million to build a Japanese-themed compound in California's Silicon Valley.
He won sailing's America's Cup in 2010 and then wrestled with San Francisco city leaders over his big plans for two waterfront piers. He owns a mansion atop a San Francisco hill with a sweeping view of the Golden Gate Bridge to the left and Alcatraz to the right. He has spent a fortune snapping up some of Southern California's most prized beachfront property in Malibu.
For Larry Ellison, an island in the middle of the Pacific is right up his alley.
Ellison built Oracle Corp. with $1,200 in 1977 and is the world's sixth-richest billionaire. He signed a deal announced this week by Hawaii's governor to buy 98 percent of Lanai's 141 square miles.
While detailed plans for the island have yet to be revealed, he's likely to do something "epic and grand," said Mike Wilson, managing editor of the Tampa Bay Times and author of the first biography of Ellison, The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: God Doesn't Think He's Larry Ellison.
"He could build the world's largest rare butterfly sanctuary, a medical research facility to help him live forever or a really cool go-cart track," Wilson said Thursday — only half-jokingly because those are the kinds of outlandish interests Ellison has.
As a man who feels cheated by a limited life span, he's like a kid who never grew up, yet he's a great visionary, Wilson said.
Wilson said the high-tech maverick won't be concerned with how his lifestyle will jibe with a laid-back island where longtime residents are grappling with the loss of their pineapple fields to make way for luxury development: "I don't think his primary concern is fitting in with what Hawaiians want."
Yet Ellison isn't planning any radical changes for the island he has agreed to buy, a Hawaii state lawmaker said.
State Sen. J. Kalani English told the Associated Press he got a call from the billionaire's personal representatives, and they said Ellison sees Lanai as "much more than an asset."
Ellison's reps expressed sensitivity to the "culture and conservation stewardship of the island," which is home to 3,200 residents, said English, a Democrat whose district includes Lanai.
They also assured English that union contracts will be honored and that Ellison has no plans for a wind farm, even though the land's current owner, billionaire David Murdock, is retaining the right to build one. The contentious project would deliver power to Oahu through an undersea cable.
Meanwhile, Murdock's Castle & Cooke delivered letters to Lanai employees, informing them of the sale and saying they'll all be retained by Ellison, with all contracts being transferred, English said. That's comforting to English and to Lanaians who wonder what the ostentatious and eclectic software magnate has in store for the island and its tourism-driven economy.
In the end, what truly matters is how Lanai will be able to sustain itself under Ellison.
"Hopefully, Mr. Ellison is a little more sensitive to the needs of Lanai and maintaining the lifestyle of the people," said Dennis Hokama, who was born and raised on the island. "But the bottom line will always be economic sustainability."
Man of the ocean
Ellison has a love for the ocean, evidenced by his successful quest for the sailing prize America's Cup, his numerous yachts and his thrill-seeking attraction to the power of the sea.
In 1991, he broke his neck and punctured his right lung while bodysurfing in Hawaii. In an interview recalling the accident, Ellison said the beach was closed that day because of waves as high as 15 feet, but he attempted to catch one anyway.
But beyond boating or jetting into Lanai, his ties to the island aren't clear, and his forays into tourism — the economic engine that has driven the island under Murdock's ownership — are limited, if nonexistent.
"He's capable of anything," Wilson said. "Lanai may be in store for the grandest preservation effort Hawaii has ever seen. Or it may be in line for the most grotesque development effort it has ever seen."