Billionaire Larry Ellison controls Hawaiian island like a ‘Sims’ game

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

After buying Lanai in Maui County, Larry Ellison became the boss and landlord to residents there. “A lot of billionaires have these pet projects, whether they own a sports team, or they're big art collectors. This seems like it's become that kind of thing for him. … It's an island of 3000 people, so it's basically like this little community that he controls, kind of like the game ‘Sims,’” says Sophie Alexander, wealth reporter for Bloomberg News. Photo by Shutterstock.

For decades, the Hawaiian island Lanai has stood out from the tourist spots. It’s sleepier and less crowded. There’s only one school, one hospital, and only a handful of resorts. Up until the 1990s, the economy was more dependent on pineapple plantations than tourism. 

Ten years ago, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison bought almost the entire island, including nearly all the businesses and housing, for $300 million. Ellison suddenly became the boss and landlord to people already living there. Now some locals say they’re being edged out as Lanai has become a playground for the rich.

“Over the years, with $90 billion, he just kept buying up more and more. He bought the grocery store, he bought the gas station. More recently, he bought the community newspaper,” says Sophie Alexander, wealth reporter for Bloomberg News. “So even if you don't work for him, or even if you don't rent from him, you're still shopping in his grocery store, you're still buying gas from his gas station. So basically, he just came to control pretty much every aspect of life there.”

Ellison has repeatedly said that he wants to make Lanai a sustainable island, but that means different things to different people, she says. 

“Some people think it means, ‘Oh, well, he wants the community to be self-sustainable. He doesn't want us to depend on him.’ But others say, ‘Well, obviously, he means environmentally sustainable.’ And he does have a lot of Tesla products all over the island. So it does seem like … he's doing conservation projects. But then there are people who are very involved in conservation. I spoke with a man who's … a seventh-generation Hawaiian, who's really frustrated because he wants to be involved in these conversations … but Ellison won't engage with him at all."

Still, many residents are happy with Ellison because he’s been able to invest in the island, Alexander points out. He’s fixed the community pool and movie theater, and helped students in different ways. 

“But a lot of people just don't feel like it's enough, and they feel like their lives are too controlled.”

She says there’s a lot of fear among residents, and some younger families recently moved off Lanai “because it doesn't feel like their island anymore.”