Four days into his job as chief executive officer at Red Hat, Jim Whitehurst is comfortable with the firm’s trademark fedora and ready to do battle with Oracle as well as Microsoft.

“I am absolutely looking forward to it,” Whitehurst said confidently when asked about competing against two of the world’s largest proprietary software developers. “Obviously, the fact that Oracle and Microsoft are talking so much about [Linux] shows that they are scared.”

Noting that Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) has been recognized by CIO magazine four years running as the top software value, Whitehurst said criticism by such people as Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is further proof that Red Hat is “relevant.”

“You see much less talk about any other company our size,” he added. “We are a threat." Red Hat employs around 2,000 people worldwide.

“Fundamentally, we offer free software without the encumbrance of copyright protection, which is extraordinary. They have made their billions and billions through proprietary protection.

“I wake up every day excited about the challenge of competing with them,” Whitehurst said.

In taking the Red Hat job, the former chief operating officer at Delta Airlines also has embraced Red Hat’s creative culture and the company’s goal of changing the software world.

“It’s an integral part of the company,” Whitehurst said of the Red Hat atmosphere. “Not only has it made the company successful it is one of the things that attracted me to the company. Red Hat is an extraordinary place with extraordinary people. I certainly will look at our strategy, etc., but I have an absolute commitment to open source and to change.

“A wonderful thing about the company is (that) not only is it a great group of people, but we also have a mission of doing something good,” he added. “The democratization of information is good for society.”

Whitehurst also pledged to take an active role in the Triangle outside of business.

“I do feel strongly that corporate leaders need to be leaders in the community where the company is located,” he said. “I had a passion about Atlanta. I was actively involved in the chamber of commerce, and my wife served on a theater board.

“We also were very involved in charities. I certainly will look to get involved in the community in several charitable ways.”

Share Prices Up 10 Percent

On the work front, Red Hat faces many challenges in expanding its markets and after some downgrades from analysts its shares dipped to nearly $18 the day before former CEO Matthew Szulik announced his resignation. The stock is back above $20.

To help to grow the company, Whitehurst said he will lean on Szulik for advice and counsel. Suzlik, who cited a family health challenge as his reason for stepping aside, has given up his office at the Red Hat buildings on N.C. State’s Centennial campus.

“He is working to disconnect himself from the day-to-day,” Whitehurst said. But he noted that Szulik remains intimately involved with the company, and the two got together for coffee Thursday morning.

“I certainly hope so,” Whitehurst responded when asked if he expected Szulik to remain chairman. Whitehurst also was named to Red Hat’s board. “I have developed a wonderful relationship with Matthew. I will continue to tap him for advice not only as chairman, but also as a person who built the company.”

Szulik helped guide Red Hat through its initial public offering and last year took its stock listing to the New York Stock Exchange from the Nasdaq.

While Whitehurst utilized open source software in his tenure at Delta, he had not met Szulik until a recruiting firm contacted him about the CEO job. Whitehurst and Szulik met for the first time in October, when Whitehurst flew to Raleigh to meet Szulik and interview for the job.

A computer science and economics graduate from Rice University, Whitehurst, 40, is married and has twin 6-year-old children. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. Before joining Delta in 2002, Whitehurst was vice president and director of the Boston Consulting Group.

One change from working for Delta Hat is what tops his work priority list for the day.

With a laugh, Whitehurst noted: “I will say it’s nice to not have to look at fuel prices every morning.”