Time’s New Owner Gets the Attention He Craves

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Something unusual happened at Salesforce.com Inc.’s 2015 annual stockholder meeting: A chief executive officer of a public company said exactly what he thought about a political issue. He even said businesses shouldn’t operate solely for financial returns. 

In a sunlit room with views of San Francisco’s skyline, a shareholder asked co-CEO Marc Benioff to justify a donation to the Clinton family foundation, and challenged his outspoken stand against legislation in Indiana — signed by then-governor and current U.S. vice president Mike Pence — that was seen as discriminatory against gay people. Why should Salesforce’s owners tolerate the company taking sides on hot-button issues?

“There are companies who follow the Milton Friedman motto, which is ‘The business of business is business,’” he said. “Today, I think that our world is at a place where the business of business is improving the state of the world.”

Benioff didn’t invent these views on corporate responsibility, and not everyone agrees with them. But he meant what he said. And when Benioff gave his mini-speech, it was more than a year before the election of Donald Trump, a moment that seems to have spurred more people to demand companies take positions on issues like immigration, gun control and climate change.

Many firms have been reluctant to wade into issues like these. Not Benioff. He has since spoken out against some of Trump’s policies, and against other tech companies such as Facebook Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. that he believed were acting irresponsibly. 

Benioff’s position on CEO responsibility is useful context to understand his purchase of Time magazine. Over the weekend, his family announced it had agreed to buy the storied — but financially faded — news magazine. He joins the growing ranks of people with technology-related fortunes who are buying news outlets including the Washington Post (Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeff Bezos) and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs, the philanthropist and widow of Apple Inc.’s co-founder).

Owning a well-known media property turns up the stage lights even on prominent people such as Bezos and Benioff. But ask real estate billionaire Sam Zell how much he disliked being a media company owner

Benioff is both the perfect person to absorb the attention that comes with being a media baron — and exactly the wrong person. He is a carnival barker whose every word is designed to promote himself, his company or his philanthropic endeavors. He can be thin-skinned in response to criticism or close attention — it’s worth reading this 2006 column about the tactics Benioff employed in response to a series of Wall Street Journal articles.

At the same time, Benioff’s attention-craving tactics have a wink of self-awareness, and he’s willing to be bombastic to draw attention to the overlooked needs of educational institutions or health care providers. Like other outspoken CEOs including Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett, his eagerness to give unvarnished views about his beliefs is sometimes self-serving — but also refreshing at a time when most corporate executives are over-rehearsed empty suits.

And Benioff may be eager for the added attention that comes with owning Time. There are a few dozen public companies with a market value of $100 billion or more, as Salesforce has — and yet his company isn’t as widely known as General Electric, UPS, Nike or peers with similar market capitalizations. The technology press corps also noticed that Benioff wasn’t among the tech CEOs summoned to Trump’s highly publicized summit of industry chiefs shortly after the 2016 election. Some news reports said Benioff had a scheduling conflict. 

Owning Time magazine looks, then, to be a way for Benioff to jump-start the attention he seems eager to have for himself, his company and his broad views on corporate responsibility to the world. Give him credit for using his prominence and wealth to pursue causes in which he believes. But it will be revealing to see how he reacts in the inevitable moments when Trump or another prominent person lashes out about a Time cover story he or she doesn’t like. Let’s hope Benioff is up to the challenge that comes with the added attention.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.