Oracle, Sun ride the M&A wave

The signs should be pretty familiar by now. Looming recession. Slowing corporate tech spending. It has all the makings of a mergers-and-acquisitions boom. And already the big corporate tech vendors are getting bigger"”and the smaller ones are getting gobbled up.

On Jan. 16, two new deals underscored the growing merger mania. Corporate software giant Oracle (ORCL) agreed to snap up BEA Systems (BEAS) for $8.5 billion, an acquisition that struggling BEA spurned just a few months earlier. And Sun Microsystems (JAVA) agreed to pay $1 billion for MySQL, a Swedish firm that makes open-source database software used by Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO), among others.

Strategic plays

In many ways, the deals couldn't be more different. Oracle is grabbing a key, but struggling, maker of so-called middleware, the software that helps share data among programs sold by different software vendors. Meanwhile, Sun gets its hands on a fast-growing, though largely unpaid for, technology that companies use to run Web sites. That said, both Oracle and Sun are thinking along the same lines: Grab complementary technologies and the customers that use them to fill out business portfolios.

In BEA, Oracle gains access to high-end customers as it moves ever more upmarket to compete with IBM (IBM). As companies in industries such as retail, manufacturing, tech, and banking combine through M&A, middleware is a growth business, since it helps them tie together the computer systems they need to compete globally. Oracle plus BEA would control more than 19% of the $11.7 billion middleware market, vs. nearly 32% for IBM and about 4% for Microsoft (MSFT), according to 2006 data from market research company Gartner (IT).

'When Oracle commits to a market, they want to be seen as the No. 1 player,' says Ian Finley, an analyst at AMR Research. 'There was no way they were going to be No. 1 in middleware by growing organically or making tactical acquisitions. They needed to take out a major player.'

MySQL gives Sun the ability to extend its support services to the open-source world, potentially opening new markets. The deal bolsters Sun's pitch to telecom and Web companies that use MySQL in key areas of their businesses.

The economic backdrop makes it easy to pull the trigger on such deals. There's little doubt that corporate tech spending will slow in 2008. Back in November, Cisco (CSCO) CEO John Chambers said he expects tech spending to be 'lumpy.' That means big tech vendors need to find other ways to boost revenue. 'If the growth isn't organic, companies will look to buy their growth,' says Senior Technology Analyst Andy Miedler, with investment firm Edward Jones.

Pace set to accelerate

What's more, Miedler points out, the big tech firms"”companies such as Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and others"”are flush with liquidity. And once you get past the handful of really big tech firms, the size of the next tier drops precipitously. 'These acquisitions aren't too difficult to do, and there are a lot of them to be had,' Miedler says.

The consolidation wave has already washed over the makers of business intelligence software, which companies use to analyze corporate data. In the last year, Oracle bought Hyperion, IBM picked up Cognos, and German software giant SAP (SAP) grabbed Business Objects.

 

Of course, if tech spending is slowing, doesn't it make more sense for buyers to wait for valuations to sink further‾ Some Sun watchers expressed consternation over the price tag for MySQL, wondering how Sun could justify paying so much for a company that sells what amounts to a free product. And BEA's asking price came down over the last few months, in part, analysts say, because its business was struggling. It likely would have fallen even further in subsequent months.

But Forrester Research (FORR) Vice-President and Research Director Mike Gilpin says waiting even longer has its own set of challenges. 'The more Oracle waits, the more BEA loses value,' Gilpin says. With business sputtering, customers look at other technologies. Key employees seek new jobs.

There seems little doubt that a souring economy will spur more deals. 'The pace will accelerate with a recession,' Gilpin says.

Greene is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief. Ricadela is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in Silicon Valley.

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