By any measure, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has been a successful executive. He helped build Salesforce from the ground up, starting in an apartment in San Francisco in 1999 and eventually erecting Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in the city. He took the idea of running software in the cloud and grew it into the de facto way to deliver software at a time when most companies offered software in boxes or on-prem seat licenses.
That he helped transform the way software is bought and sold is undeniable. But he’s now under intense scrutiny: Not one but two activist investors have recently taken large positions in Salesforce, meaning his decisions could be challenged on everything from acquisitions to how budgets are allocated.
For starters, Starboard Value announced in October that it was taking a sizable (but undisclosed) stake in Salesforce. Then this week, Elliott Management announced it was taking a multibillion-dollar position in the CRM leader.
Both firms usually have strong opinions about what they believe needs fixing at a company — and they typically get what they want. In this case, they likely want a more profitable, less costly Salesforce. That could involve cutting executive salaries, reducing overhead costs, laying off additional people and selling unprofitable pieces of the organization, among other things. The activist investors will probably also seek board seats.
Salesforce has already started making cuts, announcing it was laying off 10% of the workforce earlier this month. It plans to slash real estate costs, too, while reducing overall operating costs and increasing efficiency, but it might not be enough in the eyes of the new investors.
When you look at the moves Salesforce has made over the last five years, there is certainly room for criticism around the massive sums spent on acquisitions and how successfully acquired assets have been integrated and allocated. It’s possible that Elliott and Starboard were watching from afar, waiting for the company to weaken enough to question some of those decisions.
With Salesforce’s stock price down 29% over the last year and growth slowing, perhaps these firms saw the moment and made their moves. What will it mean for Salesforce and Benioff going forward? Let’s explore further.
We can work it out
When activist investors come calling, they typically make a list of desired changes and push for board seats to ensure those changes are put in place.
But this does not necessarily have to take an immediate hostile tone. A CEO who has been through an activist fight told me the goal at the beginning is to find common ground rather than assume a combative position with the activists.
“It’s not exactly about defense. That’s what the industry calls it, but it’s much more about understanding what your shareholders are pushing for and why are they pushing for these things. And are they right? And do you align on the time frame in which they want a certain set of things versus maybe the vision the company has over the long run?” said the executive, who requested anonymity to speak candidly to TechCrunch on background.
It’s very much a political exercise, and Benioff will have to read the pulse of other large investors and see how this all aligns. “I think that the really important blocking and tackling of this type of process is you have to be extremely close to your top 20 to 30 to 50 shareholders, and you have to understand what’s top of mind for them,” the CEO said.
All of this information will factor into Benioff’s strategy. If there are a lot of shareholders in agreement with the activists, then he’ll have to lean into their agenda more, but if the activists’ viewpoints differ from other shareholders, then he’ll have room to push back.
“So this is a very interesting kind of dance because it’s really a kind of shareholder democracy to some extent,” the executive said.
All that said, Salesforce is likely going to have to make some concessions.