Salesforce churns out $50 billion rally even as challenges mount

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Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce
Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Salesforce Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Billionaire Marc Benioff's expansionist philosophy for Salesforce.com is winning over customers and investors even as the software maker faces growing challenges from emerging competitors and its own heavy spending.

Salesforce was a bright spot in a technology earnings season marred by disappointments and a market sell-off that dealt blows to many other high-momentum stocks. While Salesforce wasn't immune to the rout, a rosy forecast helped prop up the shares and reassured skittish investors that the company's double-digit growth will continue.

Salesforce shares have roughly doubled since the start of 2017 as investors rewarded the company for steady expansion aided by a stream of acquisitions. That's created more than $50 billion in market value and won fans on Wall Street. All but four of the 42 analysts tracked by Bloomberg recommend buying the shares. But as the company gets bigger and rivals consolidate, it may get less of a pass for its underwhelming profit margins.

"For a company at Salesforce's scale, gross margins are really low," said Needham analyst Scott Berg, one of the four analysts with a neutral rating.

Salesforce's gross profit margin was 73.5 percent in its last full fiscal year. Oracle Corp., a more mature company, notched a margin of 79.7 percent in its most recent fiscal year, and Adobe Inc. led both with 86.2 percent in fiscal 2017.

While Berg believes Salesforce will manage to maintain growth, he's concerned about what he sees as rising competition. SAP SE agreed to buy Qualtrics International last month for $8 billion, its largest acquisition ever, to better target the customer relationship management market that Salesforce dominates. SAP and Adobe also joined an alliance with a fellow Salesforce rival, Microsoft Corp., that's meant to boost the appeal of their products.

These efforts have yet to take a toll on Salesforce. The software maker's revenue is expected to expand 26 percent to $13.2 billion in fiscal 2019. Since at least 2009, growth hasn't dipped below 20 percent and sales have never missed Wall Street expectations, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Salesforce is a "'set it and forget it' stock," Piper Jaffray analyst Alex Zukin said. "The company is sitting at the exact right place from a product, vision and sales execution standpoint putting it in a position to continue to exceed estimates for the next few quarters."

-- Bloomberg News

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