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When Michael Dell met Chris Mellor

Cool Texas dude is just your average billionaire

Michael Dell. Pic by Joi Ito
Pic by Joi Ito, CC 2.0

Profile This is the way of it: you're sitting there, at a table in a general meeting room at the Dell World event in Austin, talking to a distant colleague about what happened to Don, did I know Liem had moved to such and such an office, when an ordinary-looking guy comes over and sits down at the same table, saying: "How's it going Chris?"

And I say: "Great," as you do, and look at this pleasant guy, middle-aged, maybe a little older, spectacles, greying gair around the edges and cut conservatively. Tieless with a check pattern shirt. A relaxed and watchful expression, sort of like a reliable-looking head of a school, or a quiet engineer. Not an exceptional guy at first impression ... only it's not my first impression.

I've seen him already, in hundreds of photos, in a press conference the day before with his exec team, and in an event-opening session in front of 5,000-plus people explaining why buying EMC for $67bn is a great idea. For it is Michael Dell and he is a billionaire who has done extraordinary things in computing, all starting from building PCs at college for his friends.

In my trade as an IT hack I've been lucky enough to meet several CEOs and many have shared a characteristic of presence, of somehow making you feel they are a stronger, better, more forceful, persuasive, more dominant person than you, whether a man or woman.

Larry Ellison is the extreme example of such alpha-type CEO personalities I've met, a T-Rex lording it over everybody, so magnificently rude. Others include John Beletic who was at X-IO for a while. Faye Pairman at Panasas is a fighter. Mark Hurd was terrifying. Pat Gelsinger is a hawk. Alex Bouzari of DDN is like a swordfighter, light on his feet and dangerous. Don Basile of Violin Memory was a true New Yorker. Joe Tucci is a godfather, in the Marlon Brando sense.

There's a sense of threat, of latent power to all these personalities. There are others who are more work-a-day, more engineers, like Mike Workman at Pillar Data, in the days when it was separate from Oracle. Then there are ones who kind of embrace you and lift you up and inspire you, like Phil Soran, who ran Compellent. David Scott, who ran 3PAR, shared some of that.

Tarkan Maner at Nexenta has it too. He, David and Phil Soran have what you might call the common touch but they are also touched by something special, and it showed in ways you couldn't pin down.

Startup founders can be in selling mode all the time. With some it verges on being tiresome. With others it's fun because their enthusiasm is catching - think David Flynn of Fusion-io and now Primary Data. Also the boy wonder, Scott McNealy at Sun, with enthusiasm writ hyper-large.

Ken Klein at Tintri is a man who enthusiastically sells, but obviously has iron in the soul when it's needed.

All of them are extremely bright, have a huge work ethic, and an ability to hone in and work the details without losing the big picture. They can also work people so very well.

Michael Dell obviously has these characteristics, but the first impression at a personal level is unexceptional. And then he starts talking, putting across his points.

It's like being in a ring with a very capable fighter. You have your fight plan but your punches are blocked or sidestepped, and he's coming at you, and you go one way and he's there, and you go another and he's there, and all of a sudden you're boxed in a corner with nowhere to go and he's coming at you, building his case, not raising his voice, seeking your agreement, and smiling slightly all the while.

Extraordinary how it works.

He's comfortable in his skin. There are no indications of great wealth in his attire, no shining Rolex on the wrist, no $3,000 suit, not to my eyes at least. A plain, wholesome type guy, who is enormously persuasive, a guy who talked with Joe Tucci for a year before the $67bn deal was agreed, and that after a previous Dell reseller agreement with EMC ended in what some would call acrimony.

Michael knows about activist investors, like Paul Singer's Elliott Management, and the kind of corporate board room hell and mayhem they can create. His tussle with Carl Icahn was part of the reason he took his company private. Maybe he told Joe Tucci he could get Paul Singer off his back and safeguard the company.

And Joe Tucci was persuaded. After all, Michael Dell will walk away if it makes business sense, because he has done it once already, walked away from EMC.

Michael asks my opinion of things. He's respectful, attentive, unhurried. He courteously swats away what you might call challenging questions.

"So nice to meet you," he said, "Glad you could make it," and shook my hand and walked away to the next meeting, maybe his fiftieth of the day.

I'm not awestruck. I've talked to an ordinary guy, only he's not ordinary. He's Michael Dell: billionaire, a titan on the IT stage – and as he disappeared into the mass of people, I had no real idea of what makes him tick at all. I'll tell you one thing though, he's a cool Texas dude. ®

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