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Salesforce driving into Europe on Kroes control

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 22, 2016
Salesforce snaps up the former European Commission Digital Agenda chief Neelie Kroes - a good move for its push into Europe and for female representation at board level.

Benioff, Kroes, Kundra on stage at Dreamforce 2011
Benioff, Kroes, Kundra - back in the day, Dreamforce 2011 (© Salesforce)

Want to know how committed Salesforce is to building traction in the European public sector market? Well, cast an eye over its latest board director for a clue.

From 1 May, sitting alongside CEO Marc Benioff and Salesforce President Keith Block on the board will be Dutch politico Neelie Kroes, former European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda and, prior to that, head of the European Union Competition Commission.

Although a long time career politician, Kroes has been a member of a number of boards of directors, including AB Volvo, Ballast Nedam, McDonald’s Netherlands, Lucent Netherlands, P&O Nedlloyd and Nederlandse Spoorwegen.

Benioff said in a statement:

We are delighted to have Neelie Kroes join our Board of Directors. She is an amazing and respected leader who has done extraordinary work at the highest levels of government, technology policy and business in Europe. Salesforce will benefit greatly from her broad experience across both the public and private sectors.

This is an interesting move on several levels. Firstly, Kroes’ contacts across the European public sector make her a formidable asset in opening up that market further.

It’s not the first time that Salesforce has tapped into some hefty political clout of course. The firm previously hired Vivek Kundra, former CIO to the Obama administration, while former US Secretary of State General Colin Powell, a personal mentor to Benioff, last year joined the board of directors.

What’s intriguing here though is that, in her previous roles, Kroes was firmly at the forefront of some of the more strident data protection and privacy issues that were seen by a lot of US cloud providers - and many in the US government, up to and including President Obama - as protectionist in nature. She's also been a strong supporter of the controversial Right to be Forgotten ruling from the European Court of Justice.

Salesforce, it should be said, was never one of those companies which were vocal around the supposed protectionism issue, while Benioff himself surprised me last year by arguing in favor of wider expansion of Right to be Forgotten principles.

The two have much in common here. Back in 2011 at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Kroes was interviewed on stage by Benioff, who told her:

I was very touched by your focus on how human rights connects with cloud computing, and the importance of privacy and trust and security. In the United States, we don’t completely understand the very deep respect and focus that you have on human rights. That’s where the trust aspects come from, that there’s nothing more important than that human connection with the network.

Whatever your view of the Commission’s stance on various matters, Kroes will be a great asset for Salesforce at a time when tensions still run high between some voices in Brussels and the US tech industry.

It's also worth noting that in her two Commission roles, Kroes played an active part in tech industry regulations, including bringing anti-trust investigations against Google and Microsoft.

Salesforce hasn’t found itself on the receiving end of any such unpleasantness to date, but with ambitions to scale beyond a $10 billion run rate and with the company expanding its product footprint into areas currently serviced by partner companies, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that, at some point in the future, it might catch the eye of the Commission’s more zealous officials.

Start her up

Another aspect to her new appointment is that since leaving the Commission, Kroes has been Special Envoy for StartupDelta, a public/private partnership set up to establish a thriving ecosystem of startup companies in her home country, the Netherlands.

Last October Salesforce announced it was making $100 million available for European startups. Again, Kroes will provide valuable insight, contacts and access to the European start-up community.

Kroes told Dutch media that she is trying to get Benioff along to StartUp Fest Europe, a start-up festival held in May at various locations in the Netherlands. As Benioff didn’t keynote at the recent German leg of the Salesforce World Tour and won’t be present at the French or UK arms either, it will be interesting to see if the formidable former Commissioner succeeds in that ambition.

A final point of note is that at a time when Benioff has put female equality in the workplace at the top of Salesforce’s corporate agenda, Kroes will be the third woman director on Salesforce’s now 12-strong board, alongside YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Robin Washington, CFO at Gilead Sciences.

According to a December 2015 study by Fenwick and West, women directors make up an average of 19.1% of board members among the top 15 companies of the SV 150 [Silicon Valley 150], while just under a third of  SV 150 companies have no female directors (48 out of 150).

So, 25% representation at Salesforce is definitely above average, although clearly with room for improvement still.

My take

I actually suggested to someone a few months back that Salesforce might lure a European public sector figure on board to bolster its ambitions in this market, although I had someone rather different in mind. (I’ll keep my powder dry on who my guess was just in case it happens!). Given that Kroes was a speaker at Dreamforce though, she was on my list of possible candidates.

Regular readers will know that I’ve not been a fan of a lot of what Kroes set out to do in her time in charge of the Digital Agenda at the European Commission. Those reservations haven’t gone away now that those ambitions have been picked up by a new set of obdurate Commissioners.

That said, I’ve never doubted her sincerity or her conviction that what she proposed was in the best interests of the European economy. Her parting shot to the policymakers of Europe was needed and well said. And she did at least understand the industry issues and the technology, which I fear is rather more than can be said for her successor!

From a Salesforce perspective, this can only be seen as a good and savvy appointment. Kroes will be a significant asset to the board and to the firm’s European ambitions. Nicely done.

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