Oracle Defies the Naysayers

The company has done a better job of digesting its PeopleSoft acquisitionand holding on to customersthan expected

In 2003, when Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison announced his intention to buy PeopleSoft, he was declaring war on a number of fronts. Not only did he have to contend with PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway, who railed against the deal for more than a year, but he was also stepping up a battle with his counterparts at SAP, the largest seller of so-called software applications, which run everything from businesses' accounting to their call-center operations.

Early on, Ellison made it clear Oracle (ORCL) was buying PeopleSoft and other companies with the immediate goal of becoming the No. 2 player in applications, and ultimately capturing the top spot. "SAP is a formidable company, but we have a shot at catching them," Ellison said back in April, 2004 (see, 4/4/05, "Larry, You Picked a Nasty Fight").

Then there was Ellison's tussle with the many naysayers—SAP (SAP) and PeopleSoft executives among them—who warned Oracle wouldn't sufficiently support PeopleSoft products and that it would stumble in an ambitious project, code-named "Fusion," to knit together a string of acquisitions, ultimately sending PeopleSoft customers into SAP's arms.


 These days, the digestion is well under way. And according to new data from AMR Research, Oracle has done a much better job keeping acquired applications customers and winning new ones than many early critics expected.

According to the numbers, Oracle made impressive gains in one of the fastest growing categories of applications: Human capital management, or HCM, includes software for human resources departments that automates tasks like performance reviews and handles paperwork around hiring new employees. Oracle took over the top market share slot for the first time, thanks to its PeopleSoft acquisition, according to AMR. By the end of 2005, it had 25% of the market, while SAP had 23% -- though the lead will narrow in 2006, when SAP's share will rise to 24% as Oracle’s holds steady, AMR says.

PeopleSoft had been the gold standard for HCM, so the gain isn't entirely surprising. But the jump was larger than if PeopleSoft and Oracle's premerger revenues were lumped together. In 2004, Oracle sold $324 million of HCM software, and PeopleSoft sold $864 million. But in 2005, the combined company sold nearly $1.4 billion in HCM software. "One plus one actually equaled two-plus," says Jim Shepherd of AMR.


  When it came to customer relationship management, or CRM, the share gains weren't quite as impressive, because Oracle's acquisition of Siebel, a leader in CRM, didn't close until 2006. Still, in 2005 Oracle moved from the sixth largest seller of the software, which helps manage salespeople and call centers, to No. 3, just behind SAP and Siebel, in 2005. This year, AMR expects Oracle will rise to No. 2, with 14%, just below SAP's 17%.

Oracle still has a long road to surpass SAP in applications overall. HCM and CRM make up less than 30% of overall applications revenues marketwide. And because research firms count market share differently, not everyone grants Oracle the top spot in any category. In a statement, SAP noted that AMR takes into account services revenues, not just licenses and ongoing maintenance, which gives Oracle an edge. Further, it said, "any gains…Oracle has made in enterprise software are a temporary situation, based on their flurry of recent acquisitions designed to gain market share." The statement called further gains "unsustainable."

Still, Oracle clearly has the wind at its back. The company posted a banner fourth quarter on June 22, with applications revenue up an impressive 83%. And the stock price has been flirting with its 52-week high of $15.50, closing Aug. 14 at $15.29, up 2%. Meanwhile, SAP had a rare earnings stumble on June 13 when it said it would fall short of analysts' expectations for the second quarter. Analysts said the miss suggests Oracle could be finally eating into SAP's market share. "If that's not a momentum shift, I don't know what is," says Jesper Andersen, Oracle senior vice-president of applications strategy.


 Analysts give Oracle props for overcoming early customer fears that the company would kill PeopleSoft's superior applications. Instead, Oracle has offered lifetime support for the software customers had already bought. "That really took a card off the table the SAP guys could play against them," says Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Jason Maynard. "Oracle is demonstrating to customers this applications thing is a real and serious market for them," he says.

And, as Oracle and SAP begin to slug it out in the few remaining up-for-grabs industries, such as retail, banking, and telecommunications, strong footholds in human resources and customer care will be a big bonus. To service businesses, that software is more important than manufacturing-friendly software that manages things like when to ship how many widgets to which customers.

The challenge for Oracle will be maintaining the momentum, beyond integrating acquisitions. In core applications software, SAP has more than double Oracle's market share. And SAP is adept at execution. Without any acquisitions, it's expected to increase revenue at least 15% this year. "Next year will really be a neck-and-neck race (in these two sectors) for Oracle and SAP," Shepherd says. "While PeopleSoft really did bump them up to the top, they are by no means pulling away."

After all, that's the real battle between SAP and Oracle: Not how many customers you have, how much of their IT budget you can get. Almost every large company already has some Oracle or SAP somewhere, and these aren't systems that are easily or cheaply replaced. Ellison may yet make good on his promise to become No. 1, but expect a long bruising battle for both companies. Oracle may have acquired its way to No. 2, but it'll have to become No. 1 the old-fashioned way: closing deal after hard-fought deal. And there, SAP has historically had the edge.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.