The Day Ahead: Ellison takes on the world

Oracle's bottom line shines

Oracle has received a lot of press from a spate of business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce pacts, but the greatest advertisement for the company's software is its bottom line. Great third quarter results had chief executive Larry Ellison bashing even more competitors than usual.

Here are the results that made Ellison so giddy: Nine months ago, Oracle set out to use its own software to become more efficient and boost margins and profits. Ellison said Oracle could save $1bn (£62m) annually by using its own Internet e-business applications. The company has delivered. "We're halfway through the process of being an e-business and we've passed our $1 billion goal," said Ellison on an analyst conference call. "We realise we didn't set the bar high enough."

So Ellison set the bar higher.

Oracle reported third quarter operating earnings of 17 cents (11p) a share, beating expectations by 4 cents (2p) a share. Profit margins boomed to 31.4 percent in the quarter, up from 19.6 percent a year ago. And Ellison predicted Oracle could hit profit margins of 40 percent.

That kind of margin improvement in a large company is amazing. Headcount has declined modestly, the company has become more efficient, and financial chief Jeff Henley said Oracle "was in good shape in terms of expenses".Oracle officials admitted the company had an easy comparison with last year's third quarter, but the results were still impressive. Revenue was slightly ahead of expectations at $2.4bn (£1.2bn). Henley also said the pipeline for the fourth quarter "continues to look good".

The company topped expectations on every front. Database software sales increased 32 percent to $778m (£482m). Total applications software sales increased 35 percent, to $199m (£123m), with sales of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) applications growing at a 179 percent rate. Consulting, education and support revenues grew 10 percent to $1.4bn (£87m).

The results had Ellison bashing even more competitors than usual. Most chief executives let their results do the talking. On Oracle conference calls -- among the most entertaining in the tech sector -- the results are just the pre-game to Ellison's spiel. On the database side of the business, Ellison reiterated that Oracle software powers the largest e-commerce sites. Ellison said Oracle was beating up on and Microsoft in the field -- it doesn't even bother mentioning rivals Sybase and Informix these days.

In the CRM business, Ellison said the company was catching Siebel as it beats up SAP. Ellison also mentioned BroadVision as a worthy foe. Ellison said Siebel is the top dog, but not for long.

On the enterprise resource planning side of Oracle's business, Ellison said the company was topping players such as PeopleSoft, Baan and JD Edwards. Oracle officials said the company is beating the competition because it can implement its software within 90 days. And here's where it gets interesting. Oracle is throwing its weight around in the B2B market, and Ellison targeted a few more competitors.

Oracle wiggled its way into an auto part auction network created by Ford Motor, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler. The network will move $250bn (£155bn) worth of parts each year. And Oracle has teamed with Sears, Roebuck & Company as well as Carrefour Supermarche, two of the world's largest retailers, on an online retail exchange. "We expect to pass Commerce One in terms of installations in the fourth quarter," said Ellison.

Commerce One chief Mark Hoffman, who co-founded Sybase and is used to battling Oracle, will surely have something to say about Ellison's prediction. Oracle's new targets are Commerce One, i2 Technologies and Ariba in the race to build online exchanges. To no-one's surprise, Ellison predicted Oracle would win the B2B game, too.

Oracle said it's also getting help from the Net services companies such as Sapient, Viant and USWeb/CKS. The Net services companies are using Oracle software as they redo the Internet plumbing for other businesses.

Sometimes it can really pay off to be a bit contrary. Remember three months ago (a year in Internet time) when Verity missed estimates in its fiscal second quarter and the stock was halved? It was pretty obvious at the time that investors overreacted. Analysts hopped off the Verity bandwagon because revenue was light. The company said it missed last quarter because it didn't close three key deals. Verity indicated it was confident it would win the business this quarter.

And it did. Verity reported third quarter earnings of 34 cents (21p) a share on record revenue of $29.2m (£18m). First Call consensus was 12 cents (7p) a share, while Zack's predicted 20 cents (12p) a share. In either case, Verity creamed estimates.

Now it's time for Wall Street to hop back on the bandwagon. Look for Verity to go back to being fully overvalued and running with its Internet peers.

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