How Tableau's CEO pulled off a giant $15.7 billion sale to Salesforce with no experience of running or selling a public company


adam selipsky christian chabot_tableau

  • Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky is fresh from Salesforce’s $15.7 billion deal to buy his company.
  • Selipsky is an Amazon cloud software veteran who had never run a public company before joining Tableau, nor had he ever negotiated a mega-acquisition.
  • Salesforce was already interested in buying Tableau, which sells data visualization software, by the time Selipsky joined. He says a relentless focus on customers made the firm more attractive.
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Before pulling off one of the biggest deals in the history of enterprise technology, Adam Selipsky was a newbie at two things: running companies, and selling them for billions of dollars.

That all changed after Selipsky took over the top job at listed data visualization firm Tableau in 2016, then negotiated a $15.7 billion sale to software giant Salesforce.

Selipsky is extremely tight-lipped about the deal, which was announced on 10 June but won’t close for a few months yet. You can read about the drama in the run-up to the deal here.

But he did say he had been upfront with Tableau’s board while interviewing for the job in 2016.

In an interview with Business Insider, Selipsky said: “I was very open about this when I came in — the question did come up when I entered Tableau — I actually have very little experience in sizeable acquisitions on either the acquirer or acquiree side.

“I was really open about the fact that I was coming in to help build a long-term, successful, sustainable franchise and make customers wildly successful.”

Read more: A CEO who negotiated directly with Jeff Bezos reveals what Amazon is like as a strategic investor and buyer

Selipsky came in as CEO of Tableau in September 2016, replacing founding CEO Christian Chabot. The firm had gone public under Chabot in 2013, but the firm’s stock price had plummeted by the beginning of 2016. Selipsky was a veteran cloud software exec, having spent the best part of a decade at Amazon Web Services. He had, however, never been a CEO.

He viewed the chance to run a public company as an opportunity for “personal growth.” “It was a good combination of a situation in which I could contribute a lot as well as continue to learn a lot. I always think that’s a good combination,” he said.

Salesforce was talking to Tableau about a deal as early as 2016, just before Selipsky joined

Along with the learning curve of being directly accountable to shareholders, Selipsky would have gone into the job knowing that Salesforce was a potential and even likely acquirer.

About a month after Selipsky’s appointment, an internal Salesforce presentation titled “M&A target review” leaked and showed which firms might be acquisition targets for the cloud giant. The presentation was dated May 2016, and listed Tableau as one of three likely targets. A footnote in the presentation stated that a Tableau discussion was “in play” and The Wall Street Journal reported that the two companies had had talks that summer.

In other words, a deal with Salesforce was already on the table when Selipsky was appointed. But for whatever reason, a sale wouldn’t happen for another three years.

If Tableau’s board had brought in Selipsky to drive up the price, they were successful.

Tableau had a troubled start to 2016, with its share price cratering to $40.25 and giving it a market cap of around $3 billion, according to MacroTrends. Its performance began to improve under after Selipsky took over the top job, and its share price had lifted to $125.21 just before its acquisition was announced.

Selipsky told Business Insider that a sale had not been his primary goal. Instead, he had taken his one major lesson from Amazon to transform Tableau’s fortunes: a relentless focus on the customer.

“If you take that focus and build a sustainable long-term business, that makes you more attractive as an acquisition candidate,” he said. “The less you focus on it, perhaps the more valuable you become. Honestly, starting with myself, we completely heads down, completely focused on the business, and focused on the customers.”

In person, Selipsky is a different character from Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff.

He is fairly conventionally dressed in a grey suit, has close-cropped hair, and sticks to talking points about Tableau. He thumps on the desk with his hand when talking about customer focus and the opportunities in big data. From what he says, he’s a detail-oriented type.

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Benioff, by contrast, is a big-vision, loud personality who famously sports customized designer sneakers and once had Hawaiian dancers open Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference.

For now, Selipsky will continue to run Tableau as a separate brand and its management team will stay on. The firm will remain in its Seattle headquarters, effectively creating a second headquarters for Salesforce, whose head office is in San Francisco.

In time, he says, the two will become more closely merged. “I think from a company and a customer perspective, things are really going to stay intact,” he said. “At the same time, we have tremendous opportunities for synergies and integration with Salesforce.”

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