Salesforce Co-CEO Keith Block on Marc Benioff, Homelessness, and Trust
It’s been just a few months since business software giant Salesforce promoted Keith Block to co-CEO alongside longtime chief Marc Benioff.
Salesforce pitched the move as crucial for growth—something the company is well acquainted with since Block joined Salesforce five years ago after a long stint at database giant Oracle. Shares of Salesforce, known for delivering sales software via the cloud, are now at around $130, more than double their price in 2013.
Five years ago, Salesforce’s customers were mostly U.S.-based small-to-medium sized businesses, Block said. Now, customers include some of the world’s biggest companies like Toyota, American Express, and State Farm.
In this interview, Block talks about Marc Benioff, San Francisco’s homeless problems, and the importance of trust. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fortune: Why does Salesforce need two CEOs?
Block: What this is all about is to help scale the company. We talk a lot about our goals of getting to $23 billion [in sales] by fiscal year 2022 [the company logged $8.4 billion in revenue for 2017], and we think about $30 billion and beyond. We looked to formalize a model that allows us to make decisions faster, divide and conquer, and focus on our strengths.
Why couldn’t you do that before?
Well, we’ve been doing it for a long period. It’s really about strengthening the roles and responsibilities and formalizing an operating model. I think that’s important because if there’s any ambiguity, then you’re going to have inefficiency.
What’s an example of a decision you would make that Marc now wouldn’t?
Anything from something strategic around how our finance organization is running to our back office infrastructure, or our sales go-to-market [corporate sales strategy], or something with Mulesoft [the enterprise software company Salesforce acquired earlier this year for $6.5 billion].
Something that we’d do together would be deciding on a new market that we think we should enter or an acquisition that we may go after—that sort of thing.
We’ve had a pretty rapid rise. Five years ago we were a $3 billion company; this year we’ll do over $13 billion; next year we’ll do over $16 billion; in two years we’ll be at $23 billion. You can’t run the business the same way. You want to take the best of what you’ve had before and you want to add new processes that will help you scale the company.
What Marc likes to focus on is thinking about company strategy, product strategy, and culture. Really, day-to-day operations is where my strength is, and a lot of focus on customers.
What’s a common theme you’re seeing across the industries you work with?
Everything is about the customer. In the beginning of this century there was this huge push on taking costs out, and that will always be there. Companies will always try to become more efficient. But there’s a new thing going on here—a new global phenomena on digital transformation, which is about growth. CEOs need to grow. You can’t cut your way to prosperity.
Have any of the recent public concerns around data privacy impacted how businesses come to you?
Companies are not coming to us about data privacy. Our core values start with trust. Every company needs to have a data strategy, everybody has to be worried about trust, everybody has to be worried about security.
What companies do you trust?
I have enormous trust with State Farm. I think they have a world-class CEO in Michael Tipsord. I think he’s a great example of a strong executive who cares about his people and whose built a culture of trust. Dion Weisler of HP, Inc., I think he’s a world-class executive. I think he’s done a fantastic job with that company. I think Jes Staley at Barclays has done a fantastic job turning around Barclays.
Does Salesforce have to expand from its core customer relationship management [CRM] products to get bigger?
No. 1, we’re in a market that essentially we created. It’s the fastest growing enterprise category there is. There’s the operating system, there’s database, there’s ERP, and then there’s CRM. CRM is the fastest growing category, and it will be the largest category. We’re growing at over twice the rate of the market.
I think it’s important to stick to our focus—that we don’t try to be like these other legacy companies. They’ve got huge portfolios that are not necessarily adjacent. You have to look at them and say, “Why are you doing this, why are you doing that?”
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It’s not productivity onto itself, it’s productivity as a natural adjacent for a salesperson who wants to be productive, or for a service person who wants to be productive. Everything we do in acquisitions is a natural adjacency. People classically think of Quip as a word processing tool, something like Microsoft Office. But it’s a great collaboration tool, and every one of our employees uses it.
Marc Benioff is involved with politics and is vocal about societal issues. Is that something you want to do?
We’re actually both very passionate about it in different ways. We have our own styles. We’re both passionate about the culture of the company. If you look at what’s important to our employees, if you look at the position we took in Indiana [Salesforce opposed a controversial law that would have let companies deny services to same-sex couples]—it was a very strong position involving legislation that made our employees feel uncomfortable and threatened.
When it came to equality and equal pay [Salesforce previously said it adjusted its employee compensation to eliminate any pay gap between genders], we had to do the right thing for our employees.
The whole situation we recently had with Proposition C [Benioff publicly supported the San Francisco measure that would tax certain businesses to fund homeless programs], I remember sitting down with Marc. My wife and I live in the city—and this is a beautiful city, and there’s obviously a problem that has to be addressed with the homeless. It’s a problem with the city, the community, and for our customers.
How does San Francisco’s homeless problem impact your customers?
Our customers want to feel that they’re coming to a place where they’re safe and welcome and where people are being taken care of. I said to Marc, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve worked in New York, I’ve worked all over the world, I’ve lived in Boston, and this is something that we need to do, and the company lined up behind it.
Should more companies take these kinds of stands?
Most companies have some kind of philanthropic effort. Every company has its own culture, and I think you have to respect the culture of other companies.
I think we have a trust crisis with our governments and, perhaps, organizations in our communities. I think it’s created a bit of a void that needs to be filled.
I think executives and CEOs can fill that void by speaking out. I think there needs to be more of a public sector—private sector partnership. I don’t think it can be just the government and I don’t think it can be just CEOs.
I do think more and more CEOs have to speak out, because they represent tens of thousands of people. It really is about their culture and their values. I don’t think people can be silent.