The last thing the CEO of any company needs on the morning of his company's annual conference is some monumental industry announcement to distract him and his attendees from his own company's breaking news. But, in a real test of public company executive ball juggling, that's exactly what salesforce.com's chief executive got when, on the morning of the company's DreamForce annual lovefest, Marc Benioff was faced with the acquisition of his arch nemesis Siebel by none other than his former employer and early salesforce.com investor Larry Ellison. In his coverage of the event (see CRM mashup), my colleague Dan Farber wrote "I spent the morning at the salesforce.com event, but much of the discussion in the hallways was about the implications of Siebel getting acquired by Oracle."
But, in an impressive display of being cool under fire, and with a keynote still to present and a new service still to launch (ZDNet SaaS blogger Phil Wainewright wasn't impressed), Benioff was both amazingly responsive to press inquiries and prolific in the generation of his own memos regarding those implications. Within minutes of the news that Oracle was going to buy Siebel, it was Benioff who immediately drew attention to the technical conflict in architectures that Ellison will at some point either have to reconcile, or just plain reckon with.
Dramatic attempts at thunder stealing is nothing new for this businesses. The fiercest rivalries in the industry are laced with histories of vendors making announcements on the opening day their biggest competitors' annual events. IBM for example, established a pattern of doing this to Sun on the eve of the latter's annual JavaOne conference (much to everyone's surprise, everyone behaved this year). But never, in my memory, has the target of such thunder stealing gone before both the public and the press with a new game face on before the company's own news was out and the keynotes were behind them.
This was a big test for Benioff, who is relatively new to running a public company. To say he passed is an understatement. I would argue that he has raised the bar for how accessible and communicative the chief executives of other publicly and privately held companies will need to be in their most challenging moments, let alone the ones that are business as usual. About the only thing that Benioff is missing is a personal blog along the lines of what Sun president and COO Jonathan Schwartz is doing.