Starboard takes a stake in Salesforce. Here’s what could be next for the tech giant
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Company: Salesforce (CRM)
Business: Salesforce is a global leader in customer relationship management (CRM) technology that brings companies and their clients together. It was founded in 1999 and is a pioneer in the cloud software space. It started as a tool to help enable sales teams to increase their productivity while also improving the end customer experience. Over the last 20 years, they have expanded into other areas to help companies connect with and better serve customers, including Sales Cloud, Marketing & Commerce Cloud, Platform & Other, Integration Cloud, Analytics Cloud and Service Cloud.
Stock Market Value: $160.1B ($160.17 per share)
Activist: Starboard Value
Percentage Ownership: n/a
Average Cost: n/a
Activist Commentary: Starboard is a very successful activist investor and has extensive experience helping companies focus on operational efficiency and margin improvement. Starboard also has a successful track record in the information technology sector. In 48 prior engagements, it has a return of 34.33% versus 13.75% for the S&P 500 over the same period.
On Oct. 18, Starboard Value announced that it took a position in Salesforce.
Behind the Scenes
Starboard views Salesforce as a high quality and sticky business at an attractive valuation with the potential for significant value creation through a better balance of growth and profitability. Salesforce’s vision and leading market position has allowed it to grow revenue at a roughly 38% compound annual growth rate over the last 20+ years. It is a market leader in several large and fast-growing markets (No. 1 or No. 2 market share in seven markets with 8.5% to 18.7% growth rates). Despite this, they have underperformed peers, the technology sector and broader market over the past three years and are valued significantly below the peer median multiple on forward revenue (3.8x vs. 6.7x for peers) and free cash flow expectations (18.7x vs. 22x for peers).
This valuation discount can be largely attributed to their subpar mix of growth and profitability. Salesforce peers are operating at a “rule of 50” – average revenue growth plus adjusted operating margins of peers equals 49.4. Salesforce currently has a revenue growth rate of 17.0% and 20.4% operating margins, which brings it to 37.4 combined. Starboard has had extensive experience with growth companies that begin to see slowing growth rates and need to either regain that growth and/or focus on margins.
The good news here is that Salesforce has a refreshed management team that is focused on improving the company’s growth and profitability. Brian Millham was appointed president and chief operating officer in August 2022. Bret Taylor was appointed co-CEO in November 2021, and Amy Weaver was appointed as president and chief financial officer in February 2021. At their September 2022 Investor Day, Salesforce announced new revenue targets, a commitment to drive profitable growth and opportunities for operating margin and free cash flow. At this Investor Day, they also made their first specific margin target in history: 25%. Shortly before the Investor Day, during the second-quarter earnings report in August, Salesforce announced its first-ever share repurchase program. However, this margin target is below its peers. Even if they were to hit that target, this would only bring them to a growth + margin of 42. Starboard thinks they can do better, and we agree, especially with Starboard’s help.
Another opportunity for value creation is capital allocation. Through FY2026, Salesforce will have an additional $20 billion to $25 billion of cash to deploy on either value accretive M&A or further capital return, beyond the $10 billion share repurchase program. Starboard has extensive experience in helping companies optimize growth, margins and capital allocation, typically from a board level. Often the best form of activism is when a good activist gets on the board of a good company and works with management to optimize operations and balance sheet. This takes no more than one or two directors, and that is what we think would be best for shareholders here. At the very least, Starboard will be an active shareholder in this investment.
Interestingly, on Oct.18, Inclusive Capital also disclosed a 1 million share (0.1%) stake in Salesforce. Inclusive noted that they are interested in the stakeholder model at the company and expressed their belief that Salesforce is very customer-centric – they create loyal customers because they are training them on how to use different tools, upscale and enhance human capital. Inclusive is an impact-oriented investor and pointed out that the company has a new product that was recently announced called the Salesforce Net Zero Cloud, an emissions tracking, carbon counting tool which helps companies manage sustainability data. This product was launched in partnership with Arcadia, a tech company that grants access to data focused on fighting the climate crisis. Inclusive noted that while it is certainly not in a group with Starboard, it agrees with Starboard’s financial analysis and path to profitability.
Ken Squire is the founder and president of 13D Monitor, an institutional research service on shareholder activism, and he is the founder and portfolio manager of the 13D Activist Fund, a mutual fund that invests in a portfolio of activist 13D investments. Squire is also the creator of the AESG™ investment category, an activist investment style focused on improving ESG practices of portfolio companies.