Don't Look to salesforce.com for Profits (Yet)

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Marc Benioff isn't interested in profits. Not yet, anyway.

Speaking in an interview with Bloomberg News ahead of the Dreamforce customer conference in San Francisco this week, the salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM  ) chief and co-founder said his aim is to win a war for market share.

"My job is to grow the company's top line," Benioff said. "I'm all about growth, growth, growth."

Eye-rollers will read that and point out that Benioff is a showman, well-known for a great line and a great story. And while he and his team have succeeded at delivering big revenue gains -- sales are up roughly 37% annually over the past five years -- returns on equity and capital have been declining since 2009.

Top managers such as Apple's Steve Jobs and Costco's Jim Sinegal tend to produce accelerating gains in both areas. Meanwhile, the stock has badly lagged both the Dow Jones (INDEX: ^DJI) and the S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC) over the past year.

Yet I can see Benioff's point. His company may be 12 years old, but the cloud computing revolution is only now beginning to catch on, thanks in part to HTML5, CSS3, and other tools that allow a Web page to function much like a native app.

Neither Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) nor SAP (NYSE: SAP  ) has shifted its business to leave install-and-manage software behind, and among online peers only NetSuite (NYSE: N  ) is comparably positioned. An all-in bet on winning customer contracts makes sense in this regard, even if that means big capital investments, huge options giveaways to new sales staff, and other investments that wipe out near-term GAAP profits.

Do you agree, or is Benioff pursuing a losing strategy? You tell me. Please vote in the poll below and then leave a comment to tell us what you think about salesforce.com's business.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team. He owned shares of Apple and Oracle at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Costco Wholesale, and Oracle. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, salesforce.com, and Costco Wholesale. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended shorting salesforce.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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