A Return to Salesforce: Former Executives Come Back to Drive Growth
Ariel Kelman had been away from Salesforce for over a decade, when he received a direct message on Twitter from CEO Marc Benioff in early April. Benioff wanted to know if the marketing executive, who had leadership roles at Amazon Web Services and Oracle since leaving Salesforce, was ready to come back.
“I just thought it was good timing,” Kelman said in an interview at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last week. Kelman spent the few months prior running marketing at a startup called Fireblocks before rejoining Salesforce in June as chief marketing officer.
“This is a company that I had a great time at,” he said.
Miguel Milano, who led sales in major international markets for Salesforce for over a decade, also returned in June with the title of chief revenue officer. Milano was lured back by Salesforce operating chief Brian Millham, who spent some of his vacation in Madrid talking his former colleague into rejoining after three years at startup Celonis.
“It took a couple swipes,” Millham said at Dreamforce.
Kelman and Milano are among at least eight ex-Salesforce execs who have rejoined the company in 2023, as it approaches its 25th birthday. Benioff, who saw co-CEO Bret Taylor depart early this year after just a year sharing the top job, is turning to more of the old guard to help drive Salesforce through a challenging economy and an era of slowing growth.
Prior to the tech downdraft that started in 2022, Salesforce made large acquisitions, spending about $50 billion in total for MuleSoft, Tableau, and Slack between 2018 and 2021.
Having made these big bets to fuel sales growth and expansion into new markets, Salesforce is now refining its sales approach and becoming more reliant on its own products.
During Dreamforce, which drew over 40,000 people to its hometown, the company hosted an event for 50 former employees who were given designated seats at the show and custom swag. Current executives were there to greet them, a spokesperson said.
On Salesforce’s Aug. 30 earnings call, Benioff expressed his happiness in welcoming back his former colleagues. Millham told that it’s easy to get them reacquainted.
“You don’t have to be there each and every day to ensure they’re doing the work,” he said. “One of the benefits of boomerangs is they hit the ground running.”
Their jobs won’t be easy. In January, Salesforce announced a restructuring plan that involved cutting 10% of its workforce, or more than 7,000 jobs. Benioff admitted that with revenue increasing during the pandemic, “we hired too many people leading into this economic downturn.”
Benioff had been under pressure to produce results as the stock lost almost half its value last year. Activist investors demanded more robust growth and profit, as well as a more thoughtful approach to dealmaking.
In March, Benioff declared that Salesforce had disbanded its board committee on mergers and acquisitions.
Stock is up, but growth still slow
Between March and May, Bain conducted an operational review comparing Salesforce with other companies. The analysis resulted in more people reporting to each manager, fewer salespeople visiting a given customer, and a more direct line between salespeople and Benioff, according to Millham.
In the July quarter, Salesforce’s sales and marketing costs dropped by 9%, the steepest shrinkage since the company’s IPO in 2004.
Investors are back on board, lifting the stock 62% this year, double the gains for the Nasdaq.
Amy Weaver, Salesforce’s finance chief, said the company reached its goal of a 30% adjusted operating margin three quarters earlier than planned.
Revenue growth has yet to rebound, hovering around 11% the past two quarters. But it’s early days for the returnees.
Kelman, who came back in June, mentioned that one thing the company is doing to boost marketing performance is using its Data Cloud tool to quickly message sales reps in Slack anytime a client views a product page.
“We’re trying to grow all our metrics very aggressively,” he said.
At the same time, Salesforce is looking for ways to improve efficiency. The company plans to make its products increasingly available for prospective clients to use without involving salespeople, which will likely take years to fully implement.
Millham could have been one of the boomeranging executives himself. In 2021, he received a strong offer for a high-profile leadership position at another company but decided to stay at Salesforce. He was rewarded with a retention bonus on top of other compensation.
Last year, Millham was promoted to COO and took on additional responsibilities after Taylor stepped down.
“When you grow up here — I’ve been here now 24 years — you have a certain commitment to the company,” Millham said. “I wanted to make sure I stayed here and will likely end my career here. No doubt about it.”
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