Larry Ellison's TikTok bid puts Oracle chairman back in the spotlight

Billionaire tech and sports mogul looks to pull ahead after missing early years of cloud-computing boom

Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison’s pursuit of a deal with TikTok could win him two prizes at once: a flashy new customer for his company’s lagging cloud-computing business and a victory over a fierce rival.

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Mr. Ellison, 76 years old and chairman of the company, has reason to be a big fan of Chinese-owned TikTok, a video-sharing app famously beloved by young people. But first Oracle, TikTok and their partners have to get a deal done that could return the business-software company to the center of the tech world.

Mr. Ellison maneuvered Oracle ahead of Microsoft Corp. in the race to become TikTok’s U.S. tech partner, and personally lobbied President Trump to sign off on a preliminary agreement, people familiar with the talks said.

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Under the current deal terms, Oracle and Walmart Inc. would take a combined 20% stake in a new U.S.-based TikTok. Oracle would guarantee the security of U.S. user information to satisfy White House concerns that China’s government might get access to such data. But the parties, including TikTok’s Beijing-based owner, ByteDance Ltd., are still finalizing their agreement and need approval from both the U.S. and Chinese governments.

Oracle hasn’t said what it would pay for its planned 12.5% stake, though based on estimates for TikTok’s total valuation the investment could top $7 billion. An initial public offering of TikTok in the U.S., which the preliminary deal says would happen within a year, could return some of that money.

Winning the TikTok contest would pay other dividends for Mr. Ellison, most significantly boosting Oracle’s efforts to gain traction in the hot field of cloud-computing—which he once dismissed as a fad.

As he plays catch-up with market leaders Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft, Mr. Ellison already has deployed the hardball tactics for which he’s long been known. Oracle over the past few years has been poaching hundreds of employees from Amazon Web Services, the online retailer’s cloud arm, offering massive salary increases. And four years ago, Oracle spent around $9 billion on cloud-software provider NetSuite Inc., its biggest ever acquisition.

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Oracle also has been trying to land the kind of high-profile cloud clients that bring bragging rights as well as big revenue. This year, it won business from Zoom Video Communications Inc. when the videoconferencing app needed extra capacity to handle skyrocketing demand during the pandemic.

After Mr. Trump signaled his backing for Oracle’s TikTok arrangement, the U.S. software company said in a statement its work with Zoom influenced the outcome.

This summer’s drama has also returned the billionaire back to the center of the action in the tech industry.

One of the world’s richest men, Mr. Ellison has long sought to keep Oracle in the public eye. The company paid for naming rights to the San Francisco Giants home baseball park and for the Oakland home of the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors, before they moved to San Francisco. Mr. Ellison himself sits on the board of one of Silicon Valley’s buzziest companies, Tesla Inc.

But Oracle’s core business, database software for companies, is anything but splashy compared with the businesses belonging to a younger generation of tech titans such as Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

“Larry wants to be in the spotlight. It doesn’t matter how many billions it will cost,” said Osama Elkady, a longtime Oracle executive who left in 2013 and now is CEO at data-analytics company Incorta Inc. And Oracle, he said, has had to show it is taking the cloud seriously. “This might give them new blood,” Mr. Elkady said.

Oracle declined to make Mr. Ellison available for comment.

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A college dropout, Mr. Ellison is among a small group of fabled tech entrepreneurs who drove the rise of Silicon Valley and changed how people live and do business. His competitive streak is legendary. In 2000, Mr. Ellison admitted to hiring private investigators to look into Microsoft, calling it a “civic duty.” The investigators found Microsoft helped fund companies that supported Microsoft in a battle with the Justice Department.

Mr. Ellison is an avid sports mogul who had his biggest success with the America’s Cup sailing competition. With a willingness to both spend money and tussle—he paid handsomely to lure some of Australia’s and New Zealand’s best yachtsmen—he scored a 2010 victory that returned the trophy to American hands. Mr. Ellison himself served as crew on board.

He’s also passionate about basketball. He has had a hoops court on his yacht, with a powerboat tailing it to retrieve balls that go overboard. Mr. Ellison has repeatedly tried to buy a National Basketball Association franchise, but most recently lost out on the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2014.

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TikTok could be Mr. Ellison’s revenge, of sorts. Microsoft earlier this summer was the leading candidate to join with TikTok to address U.S. national security concerns. Its current CEO, Satya Nadella, also spoke with Mr. Trump to get the deal done.

The Microsoft deal talks stalled when China imposed export restrictions on the software that TikTok uses to recommend videos to users, an algorithm seen as the app’s secret sauce. Microsoft saw that as a deal breaker because it felt it needed control over the algorithm to address national security concerns, people familiar with the matter said. That left Mr. Ellison in pole position.

With a deadline approaching for a deal to head off a partial ban of TikTok, Mr. Ellison got on the phone with Mr. Trump, for whom he hosted a fundraiser this year, people familiar with the talks said.

Mr. Ellison also proposed to Mr. Trump that the companies establish a $5 billion education fund, an idea the president later touted.

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Soon after, Mr. Trump gave his blessing to a deal that would make Oracle TikTok’s security partner and provide the cloud-computing services that, analysts estimate, could represent a multibillion-dollar business over the next few years.

TikTok will further cement Oracle’s credentials as one of the few providers that can satisfy government security concerns, says Mark Moerdler, a senior research analyst at Bernstein Research. “This is not commodity cloud computing. Oracle could make good money on this business.”