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CorpGov: Benioff Talks Values Versus Shareholder Value

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Published: October 1st, 2021
While the Salesforce boss would have liked to buy Twitter, stakeholders — not just stockholders — come first.

Salesforce Inc. (CRM) boss Marc Benioff addressed the changing mandate for CEOs at The Deal’s Corporate Governance 2021 conference.

In an interview with Jim Cramer on Thursday, Sept. 30, Benioff discussed the influence of a list of stakeholders on operational and strategic decisions from safeguarding customers and children on social media to deciding whether to buy Twitter Inc. (TWTR).

“I would’ve loved to have bought Twitter,” Benioff acknowledged, while saying he would have to weigh the interests of investors and — others.

The list of stakeholders is lengthy, especial in a place like San Francisco. “I have, of course, my employees, my customers, my partners, my shareholders,” he said. “By the way, in San Francisco, where I live, the homeless are a key stakeholder. The planet is a stakeholder.”

The Friedman Doctrine of shareholder primacy no longer holds, Benioff suggested. “Any CEO who’s operating in shareholder-only world, you know that they’re going to get taken out because that doesn’t work anymore,” Benioff said in a discussion that frequently cited his latest book, “Trailblazer.”

When considering the long list of stakeholders, Cramer asked how we would advise Robinhood Markets Inc. (HOOD) CEO Vlad Tenev about essentially protecting customers from themselves. Robinhood’s trading platform figured in the explosion of meme stocks such as GameStop Corp. (GME) and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. (AMC). “A huge number of people are doing things that I regard as being destructive to their money,” Cramer said. “They’re gambling.”

Robinhood has to “operationalize safety,” Benioff said. “Tell me what AI you’re writing, what software you’re writing?” he said. “When do you call that person and tell them to stop doing what they’re doing?” The company should develop some kind of metrics to gauge safety. “How will you know that you have safety?” he asked.

What advice would Benioff give Mark Zuckerberg? While Facebook Inc. (FB) faces perpetual criticism for the effects of its platform on society, it is recently under the glare of scrutiny for a reported plan to develop an Instagram for children.

“You have to ask, what is your highest value?” Benioff said. “Is it trust? Is it power? Is it customer success? Is it innovation? Is it a quality? Is it sustainability? You have to choose.”

Cramer raised the issue of creating an FCC for social media. “It’s ultimately not even about that company,” Benioff said. “If children are being targeted and hurt, then the government has a moral obligation, but also systemic obligation, to come in and resolve this,” Benioff said, while adding that investors and business people could amplify the message.

Benioff described how his grandfather, San Francisco attorney Marvin Lewis, sued NBC in the 1970s for broadcasting a program about a rape. After the program aired, youths emulated the story in an actual assault. “He sued them for basically putting this TV show on at 8 pm and said, ‘This is just not right,'” Benioff said. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that NBC was protected by the First Amendment. The FCC noticed the case, however. “They created the things that we know today — the family hour, prime time, late night — and said certain kinds of television are not appropriate at certain times of the day when kids are watching,” Benioff said. “So that is the role of government to come in, to regulate, to make it clear.”

While Benioff is know for aggressive dealmaking, such as the $27.7 billion purchase of Slack Technologies Inc. and the $15.7 billion acquisition of Tableau Software Inc., he noted that the company deploys resources for philanthropy through its one, one, one model. The company donates 1% of its equity into an endowment, 1% of its employees’ time to volunteering and 1% of its product to deserving organizations.

During the acquisition of Slack, Benioff said, Salesforce discovered that the target had followed its example. “They had copied our one, one, one model and they put $50 million into our endowment,” he said.

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