Hear that Tune? Is It CFO Musical Chairs at Oracle Again?

Company president Safra Catz, who held the job once before, takes over as Jeff Epstein resigns after his three-year stint.

The familiar game of musical CFO chairs may be on again at Oracle Corp.

With its announcement this week that Oracle President Safra Catz is taking the finance chief's chair as an additional responsibility -- after the unexplained resignation of three-year CFO veteran Jeff Epstein -- what was once among the most tenuous of American finance jobs returned to the spotlight once more.

"Ms. Catz's appointment is permanent and is effective immediately," the company said. And, explained CEO Larry Ellison, "Safra already has the long-standing confidence of our employees, our Board and our shareholders. There is no more logical choice for CFO."

But permanence has not always been a quality associated with the top finance job at Oracle -- at least not since Jeff Henley left that position to become chairman in 2004.

"The CFO function has reported to Safra for a number of years and she's acted as Oracle's CFO in the past. She has the full support of the Board," added Henley, in his role as chairman. "On behalf of the Board, I'd also like to thank Jeff Epstein for his many contributions to the company during the past few years and wish him all the best for the future."

Catz, who joined Oracle in April 1999, has been a board member since October 2001, and president since January 2004. From November 2005 to September 2008 she served as finance chief, giving way to Epstein at that time.

A Background in Game Tech

Epstein reported to Catz in his CFO role, in which he had responsibility for finance, the controller's office, finance operations tax, treasury, real estate, investor relations, audit, and customer leasing.

Before coming to Oracle, Epstein from April 2007 through June 2008 was EVP and CFO of Oberon Media Inc., a private Internet game technology concern and publisher. Before that he was EVP and CFO of ADVO Inc., a direct mail media company. Other previous jobs included being a senior vice president and CEO of VNU's Media Measurement and Information Group, with businesses that included Nielsen Media Research in 2002 and 2003.

After years of CFO stability under Jeff Henley, who took over in finance in March 1991, and moved from CFO to chairman in 2004, the Oracle post became a place for short-timers, with stories circulating that there were clashes with CEO Ellison. The two who served less than a year were Harry You, and ex Microsoft Corp. CFO Gregory Maffei. Maffei was replaced by Catz in late 2005.

Maffei, now CEO and president of Liberty Media since 2006, had served as finance chief from 1997 to 2000. He then became chairman and CEO of 360networks Corp., before becoming Oracle's co-president and CFO early in 2005.

More Duties for Hurd?

The latest move at Oracle, the world's second-largest software maker, was interpreted as a shift in operational responsibilities toward Catz's co-president, Mark Hurd, who previously was Hewlett-Packard Co.'s CEO. He joined Oracle last year.

Pat Walravens, an analyst at JMP Securities LLC in San Francisco, told Bloomberg News that the CFO shuffling might open the door for Hurd to one day take the reins from Larry Ellison, Oracle's co-founder, who has run the company since 1977.

"Does this make it more likely that Mark Hurd is the eventual successor to Larry Ellison?" asked Walravens. "It seems that way to me. I think he gains more control over the day-to- day operations of Oracle because of this change."

A Mystery

Deborah Hellinger, a spokeswoman for Redwood City, Calif.- based Oracle, declined to comment beyond the statement when asked by Bloomberg about Epstein's departure.

One analyst, Jefferies & Co.'s Ross MacMillan, suggested to Bloomberg that Epstein may have stepped down because the crowded ranks at Oracle left little room for advancement. "You work in the shadow of the CEO and co-president structure," he said. "With the appointment of Hurd and an unchanging reporting structure, the question is how long he would have stayed for if there wasn't any upward momentum in his own role."

Catz has been credited by Ellison with overseeing the $10.6-billion PeopleSoft Inc. takeover in 2005, which began a huge acquisition spree. Oracle lately has depended on its purchase of Sun Microsystems Inc. last year, helping it push into the computer-hardware market.

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