Monday, July 09, 2007

Ellison's NetSuite investment

Larry Ellison is very close to pushing his NetSuite venture onto the public markets and it's got folks worried about a potential conflict of interest. Before everyone gets carried-away-er, I'd like to point out that Ellison's fortune is almost fully tied to Oracle, so there is every reason to assume that he will put Oracle shareholders ahead of NetSuite shareholders. To illustrate, at the moment, Mr. Ellison's Oracle holdings are worth $24.5 billion. Assuming the NetSuite IPO sells at the high end of its range, his holdings in that company would be about $555 million. If NetSuite catches up to in terms of market capitalization, Ellison's investment would be worth about $3.7 billion. In other words, NetSuite's current contribution to his net worth is a rounding error with the potential to become pocket change.

Ironically, the horses left the barn two years when Oracle bought Siebel and stepped more firmly in the on-demand side of business software. Before that, Ellison had reduced his role in NetSuite's operations and ended a licensing deal that allowed NetSuite to use the Oracle name to promote its service. NetSuite's IPO gives reporters an excuse to write about the situation, but in reality it's just another step on the path of disengaging from the smaller company. Once there is a public market for his shares, he'll be able to sell part of his stake.

At the moment, Oracle and NetSuite don't directly compete for business, which means they currently have a symbiotic relationship—Oracle sells database and middleware software to NetSuite and NetSuite fills a niche that Oracle has left vacant. But that relationship can't continue much longer. Hosted business software for small business is the next frontier for any number of software companies including Oracle, Microsoft, Google, and SAP. In addition, there are established companies like NetSuite,, RightNow, and Intiut. So Ellison's two companies are on a collision course and he's jumping off the little ship to ride the bigger one.

As an Oracle investor, there isn't much to worry about here. Larry Ellison has far too much invested in Oracle financially, professionally, and personally. NetSuite offers him and his children an opportunity for a higher return than is currently available with Oracle, but there isn't much chance it will every rival Oracle in absolute terms. Future NetSuite investors must be aware of the issue, but that's just a part of due diligence.

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