Salesforce now faces two activist investors amid layoffs, slowing growth

Already under siege from Wall Street analysts amid slowing growth, Salesforce (CRM) execs have returned from schmoozing clients in the Swiss Alps at The World Economic Forum only to be greeted by one of the most feared activist investors in the game.

Elliott Management has taken a multi-billion dollar position in Salesforce, a source familiar with the matter confirmed to Yahoo Finance, adding that the investment management behemoth may push for a board seat.

"Salesforce is one of the preeminent software companies in the world, and having followed the company for nearly two decades, we have developed a deep respect for Marc Benioff and what he has built," Elliott's big-name portfolio manager Jesse Cohn said in a statement to Yahoo Finance. "We look forward to working constructively with Salesforce to realize the value befitting a company of its stature."

Salesforce declined to comment to Yahoo Finance on Elliott's arrival to its doorsteps.

Shares popped around 1.5% at the market open Monday.

Elliott joins fellow noted activist investor and Starboard CEO Jeff Smith as having built a position in Salesforce, with Starboard's position being disclosed in October.

A source familiar with Starboard's thinking told Yahoo Finance that Salesforce has significantly more room to improve margins — if it wants to get serious about doing so.

The activist positions come as Salesforce finds itself on defense with investors arguably for the first time as a public company.

Salesforce is in the process of laying off some 8,000 people amid a drive to bolster lagging profit margins the activists are up in arms about following high-profile deals for Slack, Tableau, and Mulesoft. The company is also executing select real estate exits and office space reductions.

"I’ve been thinking a lot about how we came to this moment," Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff said in a letter to employees on the layoffs. "As our revenue accelerated through the pandemic, we hired too many people leading into this economic downturn we’re now facing, and I take responsibility for that."

The company estimates it will incur $1.4 billion to $2.1 billion in charges related to the actions.

Salesforce has committed to a 25% operating margin by calendar year 2025. If hit, it would mark a notable increase from 2022's goal of 20.4%.

Bernstein analyst Mark Moerdler said in a recent note he sees more "pain" ahead for Salesforce despite the new cost savings, adding that investors should act accordingly.

"The core of our thesis is that growth has been decelerating for years, but the deceleration has been masked by acquisitions," Moerdler wrote. "With the tailwinds from M&A no longer enough, core markets approaching cloud saturation, competition increasing, and macro issues hitting growth, management is aggressively pivoting to driving margins. But the cuts are going to negatively impact efficiency, growth, and customer/employee satisfaction. Margin improvement will be less than expected in our view, and will appear over multiple years. Meanwhile, CRM falls into growth purgatory."

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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