Salesforce.com is betting that a push into industry-specific versions of its cloud-based software can help it maintain its breakneck pace of growth, and even usurp SAP as the industry's largest enterprise application vendor.
One way to meet the latter goal is by "speaking the language of industry," said Salesforce.com President and Vice Chairman Keith Block, during a company event in Boston Wednesday.
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Block, who spent decades as a top sales executive for Oracle, knows a bit about selling software tuned for the needs of vertical markets. He left Oracle in 2012, after instant messages where he criticized Oracle co-President Mark Hurd surfaced as a result of a lawsuit Hewlett-Packard filed against Oracle.
Now Block, along with Salesforce.com Executive Vice President and former U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, is planning to go after six verticals with a mix of organic investment, partnerships and, potentially, acquisitions.
The industries in question are financial services and insurance, health care and life sciences, retail and consumer products, communications and media, public sector and automotive/manufacturing.
Salesforce.com is also hiring executives with ample experience in each of these verticals, including Andy Baer, former CIO of Comcast Cable, who will head up the communications and media segment; and Shelley Bransten, an ex-Gap marking executive Salesforce.com has tapped to lead its retail and consumer products effort.
In each industry, Salesforce.com will mull over the relative benefits of building functionality itself, working with a partner or acquiring companies, and then choose a path accordingly, Block said.
To date, Salesforce.com has already made high-profile partnerships with the likes of Veeva, which built a CRM (customer relationship management) application aimed at life sciences companies on Salesforce.com's Force.com platform.
But for the most part, "Salesforce has pretty much gotten away without verticalizing, which is amazing on its own," said analyst Ray Wang, chairman and founder of Constellation Research.
At this stage of Salesforce.com's growth, "customers going forward are looking for vertical specific requirements," Wang added.
Expect Salesforce.com to focus more on services industries than areas such as manufacturing, as the former have more users and provide "a great way to drive upsell and cross-sell of products," he said.
Salesforce.com has been laying the groundwork of its vertical strategy for some months now, but Wednesday's event served as a formal announcement and an opportunity for Block to put SAP on notice.
"We co-exist very nicely with SAP but a common theme is the senior executive saying, 'help us unlock the power of SAP, help us get that information out of it,'" Block told a group of press and analysts Wednesday.
SAP's products represent "the old world of computing," with the vendor anchored to the on-premise software license and maintenance revenue model, he added. Much like an "aircraft carrier," such a model is slow to shift around, Block said.
Salesforce.com has engaged in similar rhetoric toward SAP in the past, such as its 2011 announcement of consulting and integration services aimed at "unlocking" SAP systems to create "social enterprises."
SAP reported €16.82 billion ($23.15 billion) in revenue during 2013, compared to Salesforce.com's $4.07 billion in its fiscal 2014 ended Jan. 31.
While Salesforce.com has said it expects to reach $5.3 billion in revenue during its current fiscal year, it still has a long way to go to catch up with SAP. It also hasn't been generating a profit, whereas SAP reported €4.5 billion in operating profit during 2013.
Still, in an interview Block affirmed his belief that Salesforce.com can eventually be bigger than SAP. "There's no reason why we shouldn't pass SAP," he said. He declined to put a time frame on when that day will come.
Nor would Block directly respond to a question about why Salesforce.com isn't name-checking say, Oracle, which is also a sizable applications vendor.
"SAP is the largest enterprise apps company," he said. "It's logical for us to set our sights on them."
An SAP spokesman responded by email Wednesday to Block's statements.
"We are winning because we have the most complete cloud solutions portfolio and because customers want innovation that is easy to consume -- and integrated to the SAP solutions they already run on premise," he said. "This is why we have the largest number of cloud enterprise application users in the world -- over 35 million people in the SAP Cloud."
Competitive chest-bumping aside, Block's comments could foreshadow new customer-migration efforts or discount programs aimed at luring SAP customers into the Salesforce.com fold.
Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com