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Owning Twitter could bring Salesforce and its influence-seeking CEO new power

Owning Twitter could bring Salesforce and its influence-seeking CEO new power
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff speaks last month in San Francisco. Buying Twitter could extend Benioff's renown outside of tech and philanthropic circles. (Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

He oversees a technology empire in Northern California. He attracts huge audiences to his company's events. And he's celebrated for his philanthropy and social activism.

The descriptions might bring to mind Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook or Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg. But they apply just as well to Marc Benioff.

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The founder and CEO of sales and marketing software giant Salesforce.com Inc., Benioff has commanded a major presence in Silicon Valley since emerging as a hotshot salesman at Oracle Corp. in the 1980s. Outside the worlds of sales, technology and philanthropy though, Benioff is hardly a household name.

His stature could change soon if Salesforce goes through with a considered multibillion-dollar acquisition of Twitter, the social media service that's among the world's most-used apps.

Though the Salesforce logo hangs on gleaming towers around the world and on computer screens inside Sprint, Delta Airlines and its other customers, Twitter's blue bird is far more recognizable, dotting news websites, TV shows and more than 250 million smartphones.

Owning Twitter would turn up the global spotlight on Salesforce, and by association, its charismatic leader.

Extra attention wouldn't be the driving force for taking up Twitter, but it could be among many secondary motivations, people who know or follow Benioff said. For one, increasing his prominence could make Benioff an even more significant force in the cultural, educational and medical issues he's weighed in on around the world, philanthropy experts said.

"He is poised to emerge as one of the most important philanthropists in the world," said Trevor Neilson, who's advised Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie on donations and co-founded consultancy Global Philanthropy Group. "Benioff has already established himself as one of the most generous donors in the Bay Area, and an acquisition of Twitter would expand his global influence."

Salesforce declined to comment on rumors about its interest in Twitter. Verizon Wireless, Disney and Microsoft also could consider bidding on the San Francisco company, which is under pressure from investors to find a way to boost usage and turn a profit.

Twitter, whose market capitalization exceeds $11 billion, would be a pricey acquisition for Salesforce, valued on the stock market at about $51 billion. Both companies saw their shares sink this week amid the swirling speculation about whether a deal would emerge in coming days.

Salesforce investors and customers don't see any sense in a Twitter acquisition, Deutsche Bank research analyst Karl Keirstead wrote in a report this week. Though acquisitions have been significant to Salesforce's growth, purchases of consumer-oriented companies are rare.

"Salesforce is battling enterprise giants like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP that are gunning for a bigger slice of the cloud pie," Keirstead said. "Buying a consumer-focused social media platform does little to help Salesforce in this effort."

Other analysts said having Twitter would allow Salesforce to match IBM's acquisition of Weather Co. this year and Microsoft's purchase of LinkedIn, which Salesforce bid for too.

During a panel discussion at his company's annual customer conference Dreamforce in San Francisco this week, Benioff offered a hint at what the tie-up could deliver. Many major companies use Salesforce software to track customers and online orders. A micro-messaging service and the data users share on it could help companies market to customers in a more personalized, customized and tightly integrated way, he said.

Beyond business, Benioff and Salesforce would stand to gain newfound attention because consumer mobile apps tend to generate more pop culture intrigue than those aimed at the workplace. It's attention he could use to further personal causes.

Benioff, a USC grad, has ingrained giving back into Salesforce's culture. Company executives told Forbes in 2014 that corporate giving practices are a key factor in judging potential acquisitions.

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Some benefactors take a more modest approach. Benioff goes big, in part to inspire other tech donors.

Jason Benlevi, author of "Too Much Magic: Pulling the Plug on the Cult of Tech," noted that Benioff puts not only significant energy into charity work, but also getting recognized for it.

"He'll spend a lot of money making people know he's spending a lot of money," Benlevi said.

Benioff's fortune, estimated at $3.7 billion by Forbes, has funded children's hospitals in San Francisco that bear his name. It's gone to charities as far as India.

His influence, including the threat of economic sanctions, aided recent efforts to fight legislation in Indiana, North Carolina and Georgia that gay and transgender rights advocates said targeted their liberties.

"Do I personally think he needs Twitter to have that influence? No," said Jennifer Walske, who sits on a board with Benioff and teaches about socially conscious business practices at the University of San Francisco. "But would it put them in a new market and bring them new visibility? Absolutely."

Still, widespread appeal doesn't correspond with a businessperson becoming a more successful producer of social change, experts said. It more often has to do with what products and services they build, whether Henry Ford and the mass-produced automobile or Zuckerberg and Facebook.

If Benioff can further Twitter's use as a tool in fundraising and revolution, he'll surely burnish his image, said Marc Pollick, founder and president of celebrity donor advisory firm Giving Back Fund.

Pollick recently worked with Hollywood producer Gordon Gray and several celebrities to raise $6 million to support research of Batten disease, with Twitter and other social apps helping garner thousands of donations. He saw that a donor's fandom can matter as much as his or her bank account.

"Mr. Smith, worth $20 billion, could fund something," Pollick said. "But because Mr. Johnson, worth $500 million, gets so many followers to his tweets, that amplifies the millions he has. Fame and wealth — it's a very potent combination."

Twitter: @peard33

Twitter: @traceylien

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