Salesforce Gives Forecast for Slowing Sales Growth in Push for Profit

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(Bloomberg) -- Salesforce Inc. tumbled the most in almost six months after the software company signaled it isn’t growing as fast as it used to while shifting its focus to generating higher profits.

The shares slipped 4.7% to $212.90 at the close Thursday in New York, the steepest one-day decline since Dec. 5. Salesforce on Wednesday gave a lackluster outlook for future sales and maintained, rather than raised, its annual revenue forecast. The stock drop came despite the company reporting revenue, earnings and operating profit margin in the fiscal first quarter that topped analysts’ estimates.

Even with Thursday’s fall, the shares have rallied 61% this year, making it one of the best-performing stocks in the S&P 500.

After a tumultuous six months that included job cuts, executive departures, board director changes and public pressure from multiple activists investors, Salesforce had been winning back the faith of many shareholders. During its March 1 earnings report, the San Francisco-based company, the top maker of customer relations management software, signaled an emphasis on profit and announced market-pleasing steps, including doubling stock buybacks and disbanding its committee on mergers and acquisitions.

Read More: Salesforce Find Profit Is New Magic Word for Activist Investors

But amid the new focus, some are debating “the company’s ability to dramatically expand operating margin without impacting its ability to grow,” Brad Zelnick, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, wrote ahead of earnings.

Salesforce said growth in current remaining performance obligations, or contracted sales, will slow to 10% in the current quarter ending in July, falling short of analysts’ average estimate of more than 11%. The company also repeated its earlier fiscal-year forecast that revenue would increase 10% to about $34.6 billion — by far its slowest rate of expansion on record.

The forecast implies reflects a cautious outlook about customer information technology budgets, Anurag Rana, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, wrote after the results. The failure to increase the annual sales guidance “may drive the stock lower in the near-term,” wrote Citibank’s Tyler Radke.

The contracted sales outlook fell short of estimates because customers are looking for smaller consulting projects, said Mike Spencer, Salesforce executive vice president of investor relations. Pressure on revenue growth is due to broad economic factors rather than company cost cuts, he said, and the forecast doesn’t assume improvement or worsening of customer behavior.

Executives are betting that interest around artificial intelligence could boost sales. “There’s only one thing that customers want to talk about and that’s artificial intelligence — and specifically generative AI,” Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff said on a conference call after the results were released.

The company is working on bringing its generative and data integration tools into all of its products, said Chief Operating Officer Brian Millham. “We’re perfectly positioned to help our customers harness the phenomenal power of AI,” he said. The current revenue outlook doesn’t factor in any of the potential benefits from AI, Spencer said.

Like many of its peers, Salesforce has integrated AI features into its sales, marketing and workplace communication programs. It also launched a $250 million venture fund for generative AI startups.

Salesforce’s profitability continues to climb. The company raised its already-aggressive operating profit margin 1 percentage point to 28% for the fiscal year ending in January. Millham said the company is focusing on employee productivity measures, including return-to-office rules. Chief Financial Officer Amy Weaver said Salesforce is offsetting dilution from stock-based compensation with share buybacks.

In the fiscal first quarter, which ended April 30, revenue increased 11% to $8.25 billion, topping the $8.18 billion average projected by analysts. Adjusted profit was $1.69 a share, compared with an estimate of $1.61. Operating margin was 27.6%. For the current quarter ending in July, sales will grow 10% to about $8.52 billion, the company said. Analysts, on average, estimated $8.49 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The quarter “represented another strong step forward as we accelerate our transformation and profitable growth strategy,” Weaver said in the statement.

(Updates with closing share price in the second paragraph.)

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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