BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Being a success in business requires a thick skin. There are perpetual lawsuits, claims of patent infringement and political debates to overcome.Puma and Adidas, for instance, were born as separate companies by feuding brothers. Back in World War II, the brothers went so far as to build competing factories on opposite sides of a German river. More recently, Apple's ( AAPL) Steve Jobs and Adobe ( ADBE) CEO Shantanu Narayen have traded barbs over Flash plug-ins. Some of the more bitter business feuds of recent years follow:
The Koch Brothers are public enemy No. 1 among liberals who see them as monied masterminds of a right-wing agenda, tossing buckets of loot at tea party groups and causes. But those squabbles -- often embodied in the dueling forces of MSNBC and Fox ( NWS) News -- are nothing of much concern to a family that is so often in a less-than-flattering spotlight. A quick history: Father Fred Koch, back in the late 1920s, developed a process to more efficiently convert oil to gasoline. Rather than be hailed a hero, other oil companies blacklisted him as a threat to their way of doing things. Koch headed to the Soviet Union, made a fortune in oil wells there and came back to the U.S. after seeing Stalinist thugs at work. Back home, his company (which now also makes such products as Brawny paper towels and Dixie Cups) grew into one of the nation's largest. Things got messy when Fred died. He had four sons -- Charles, David, William and Frederick -- who simply did not always see eye to eye. The crux of accusations and lawsuits boils down to this: Charles and David might have cheated William and Frederick out of billions when they were "bought out" of their stake in the company back in 1983. Behind the basic lawsuits were a hodgepodge of brother vs. brother accusations. Hidden oil reserves and Swiss bank accounts. Land stolen from Native Americans. A blackmail plot centered around claims of one brother's sexual preference. There were restraining orders. Hired detectives picking through William and Charles' trash cans. A whistleblower lawsuit claiming oil was pilfered from federal land. William even tried to have his mother, victim of a recent stroke, called to the stand as a witness. (Doctors intervened to prevent it.) All this and more was bandied about in the media and courtrooms for years. Eventually there was an undisclosed settlement and Charles and David are back at the helm of the company, unchallenged, making billions and controversy.
Larry Ellison, the founder and CEO of Oracle ( ORCL), has something in common with Bill Koch -- both have won the America's Cup Yacht race. There must be something in the sea air that makes billionaires so ornery. Year after year, Ellison seems to find new targets for his vitriol. In the tech boom heyday, Oracle's competitive battles with Microsoft (doing for network administration what the latter company did for personal computers had them jockeying for position atop the revenue heap) turned personal. Ellison lobbed charges that Gates stole his way to the top, that Microsoft ( MSFT) copied the work of others. He later admitted hiring detectives to rummage through Gates' trash, looking for dirt that could be used against him. In 2004, when Oracle attempted a hostile takeover of Peoplesoft, the business deal was similarly personal. Ellison, called a "sociopath" by Peoplesoft CEO Craig Conway, responded by implying he would like to shoot either Conway or his dog. Battling with IBM ( IBM), Ellison offered a $10 million prize to anyone who could prove Oracle's database software wasn't at least twice as fast what could run on IBM's best hardware. When Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) last year fired CEO Mark Hurd over irregular expense accounts and a questionable relationship with a female subcontractor, Ellison had a new reason to fight. He publicly defended Hurd. He wrote in to The New York Times: "The H-P board just made the worst personnel decision since the idiots on the Apple board fired Steve Jobs many years ago." Then, to extend the middle finger a bit more, he hired Hurd. H-P, as expected, didn't take kindly to this, and sued. Ellison, in a statement, stood his ground and cast H-P as a bad friend: "Oracle has long viewed H-P as an important partner. By filing this vindictive lawsuit against Oracle and Mark Hurd, the H-P board is acting with utter disregard for that partnership, our joint customers and their own shareholders and employees." The lawsuit was eventually settled when Hurd agreed to surrender his severance deal of $14 million in stock.
There may be no shortage of folks with vitriolic things to say about Bank of America's ( BAC) former chief executive, Ken Lewis. In fact, at the height of the financial collapse, it was hard to find much that was positive about the heads of those too-big-to-fail banks reaping TARP bailout money. At a 2009 Congressional hearing on TARP money, Lewis was among the banking executives pilloried by elected officials. He didn't seemed all that worried; the grilling probably went as expected, with congressmen dropping carefully crafted one-liners punctuated with occasional fist pounding. Par for the course. Then came Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat. She didn't just rip into Lewis, she left him looking, as several observers have written, "like a deer caught in the headlights." It all started when she sarcastically referred to Lewis and others giving testimony -- including Citigroup's ( C) Vikram Pandit -- as "captains of industry." Lewis tried a joke, saying he felt more like a "corporal of industry." Thud! It got worse. Waters grew more fiery, and cryptic, with her rhetoric. After one particularly scathing attack on bankers using offshore loan departments, and fees that she felt were somehow rewarding executives for taking TARP funds, Lewis was forced to sputter: "I don't know what you are talking about." The question was, indeed, awkwardly phrased and hard to follow. But Lewis was one-upped and could only sit dumbfounded as Pandit jumped in to offer an interpretation of the question and try to answer it. Lewis was, in many ways, damaged goods from that point on. Critics, fair or not, could point to his evasive, Sgt. Shultz-like responses, "I know nothing, Hogan!" Lewis did, perhaps, get one final laugh at Water's expense. She has since been charged with violating ethics rules related to ... wait for it ... bailout funds. Massachusetts-based OneUnited Bank got $12 million in federal bailout money. Waters' husband is a stakeholder, and the congresswoman is accused of brokering a meeting with the Treasury Department that helped secure those funds.