Sep
09
2021
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Box wins proxy board battle with activist investor Starboard Value

A battle between Box and its majority shareholder Starboard Value over control of the board ended today when the company’s slate of directors easily defeated Starboard’s. It culminated months of maneuvering on both sides as they battled for control of the company.

Box, in a somewhat generic statement, expressed gratitude for the results:

Box appreciates the support and perspectives we have received from our stockholders throughout this process. The Board and management team will remain focused on continuing to transform Box and executing Box’s strategy to grow profitably and deliver significant value to all Box stockholders.

Starboard on the other hand, as you might expect, was unhappy with the outcome and didn’t hide that in a letter to shareholders released earlier today.

“We are certainly disappointed by the results of this election, which were heavily skewed by the voting rights tied to the preferred equity financing and the use of stockholder capital to aggressively repurchase shares ahead of the record date from stockholders likely to support change. At this juncture, the future of Box is in the Board’s hands, and there is a significant amount of work left to be done. Many commitments have been made, and we hope that Box will finally be able to follow through on its promises to drive improved results, accountability, governance, and compensation practices,” managing director Peter A. Feld wrote in the letter.

This all began when Starboard Value invested in Box, taking a 7.5% stake, which would eventually grow to 8.8% in the company. With that stake, it became the largest shareholder, but it remained relatively quiet until March of this year. That is when public rumblings began that Starboard was unhappy with the direction of the company, a conflict that could have ultimately resulted in the ouster of founder and CEO Aaron Levie or the sale of Box.

The situation took an interesting turn when Box announced it was taking a $500 million investment from KKR, a move that Starboard took great exception to and made clear in a letter published at the beginning of May that it wanted significant changes to take place. As we wrote at the time:

While they couched the letter in mostly polite language, it’s quite clear Starboard is exasperated with Box. “While we appreciate the dialogue we have had with Box’s management team and Board of Directors (the “Board”) over the past two years, we have grown increasingly frustrated with continued poor results, questionable capital allocation decisions, and subpar shareholder returns,” Starboard wrote in its letter.

Less than a week later Starboard made a move for board seats and the battle was on for control. Box’s position was strengthened by two decent earnings reports prior to the vote; the company took the unusual move of delivering the results early in order to give the voters that information prior to the vote.

The company also made the unusual move of filing a document with the SEC that pushed back against Starboard’s slate of candidates. In the end, Box won the battle. Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at Deep Analysis, who has been watching the content management space where Box operates for years, sees this as a victory for Levie and Box.

“It was not a surprise to me that Box won the day. In my opinion, Starboard misread and underestimated the loyalty that Aaron Levie generates. The fact is that to most Box employees and investors, the company is a success story, and they also know that the customer base is pretty engaged and that there is plenty of room for future growth,” he said.

“For Box this vote of confidence will mean that they can (if they want) make some acquisitions and invest more in R&D moving forward, without constantly having an aggressive investor looking over their shoulder,” Pelz-Sharpe added.

It’s hard to know what happens next, but Starboard still maintains its shares for now, and it still has some clout in those numbers. Throughout its ownership tenure, Box has performed better, as the recent earnings results have shown, and the firm says that this remains the ultimate goal.

“As we have repeatedly stated, our only goal has been to help Box perform better and adopt best-in-class practices across operating performance, financial results, governance and compensation in order to create long-term value for the benefit of all stockholders. We will continue to monitor progress at Box, and we hope to see the company embrace the changes catalyzed by our involvement and create long-term value,” Starboard’s Feld wrote.

Aug
12
2021
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Box reports earnings early to give shareholders time to review financials ahead of board vote

Box has been in an ongoing dispute with activist investors Starboard Value over control of the board, an argument that is expected to come to a head on September 9th at the annual shareholder meeting. In an effort to show shareholders that the numbers are continuing to improve under the current leadership, Box took the unusual move of releasing its earning report this morning, two weeks ahead of the expected August 25th report date.

Companies don’t normally report ahead of schedule, but perhaps Box sees the opportunity to do some lobbying, or conversely, to counter any negative lobbying that Starboard may be doing with its fellow investors ahead of the vote.

It’s also worth noting that in spite of the meeting being on September 9th, like a lot of voting these days, people will be sending in votes throughout this month, ahead of that day. Box wants to get its latest financial information out there sooner rather than later to catch those early voters before they cast their ballots.

Fortunately for Box and CEO Aaron Levie, the numbers look decent.

Earnings

It’s not hard to see why Box released its earnings early, as the numbers provide an argument for keeping the company’s current leadership in place.

In the three-month period ending July 31, 2021 — the second quarter of Box’s fiscal 2022 — the company generated $214 million in revenue, up 11% on a year-over-year basis. And, as Box is quick to point out, its second consecutive quarter of “accelerating revenue growth.” The company bested its own guidance of $211 to $212 million in revenue for the period.

It matters that Box is showing an ability to accelerate its revenue growth. First, because doing so puts wind in the sales of its stock; quickly growing companies are worth more per dollar of revenue than more slowly growing concerns, and accelerating revenue growth over time is investor catnip.

The accelerating pace of growth over the last half year also provides footing for Box’s leadership to argue that their product choices have been sound, directly supporting their positions that they should remain in charge of the company. If they made good product decisions quarters ago, and those choices are leading to accelerating revenue growth, why swap out the CEO?

Box had more quarterly good news apart from its revenue numbers to disclose. It also reported improved GAAP and non-GAAP operating margins — a key measure of profitability — better billings results than it had previously anticipated for the period. Box’s net retention rate also expanded to 106% from 103% in the sequentially preceding period.

And the company boosted its guidance for its fiscal year from “$845 million to $853 million” to “$856 million to $860 million.”

The counter arguments are somewhat easy to generate, however. Yes, Box’s revenue growth is accelerating, but from an admittedly reduced base; it’s not as hard to accelerate revenue expansion from low numbers as it is from higher base levels. And the company’s net retention is lower than what any business-focused SaaS company would want to report.

Will the good news be enough? Shares of Box are up around 1.5% in today’s regular trading, despite a somewhat mixed overall market. Investors now have to vote with more than just their dollars.

Boardroom context

Starboard bought approximately 7.5% of the company in 2019, and actually stayed fairly quiet for the first year, but at the end of 2020 it started making itself heard with rumors of pressure to sell the company. In what appeared to be a defensive move, Box took a $500 million investment from private equity firm KKR and gave the investor a board seat in April.

The activist investor did not take kindly to that move, writing in a letter to investors in early May, “The only viable explanation for this financing is a shameless and utterly transparent attempt to “buy the vote” and shows complete disregard for proper corporate governance and fiscal discipline.” In that same letter, Starboard made it official that it wanted to take over several board seats, outlining a litany of complaints it had about the way the company was being run. It also made clear that it wanted co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie gone or the company sold.

 

Box pushed back that the letter and another on May 10th did not accurately reflect the progress that the company had made. In July, Box took the battle public in an SEC filing detailing the back and forth dance that had been going between Box and Starboard since it bought its stake in the company

So far, the cloud content management company has staved off all attempts to force its hand and sell the company or fire Levie, but this is all going to culminate with the shareholder’s vote. It’s truly a battle for the soul of the company.

If Starboard convinces shareholders to give it several seats on the Box board, it would probably be able to push out Levie, take control of the company and likely sell it to the highest bidder. The early financial report released today, while not exactly stellar, shows a pattern of increasingly good quarters, and that’s what Box is hoping voters will focus on when they fill out their ballots.

Jul
07
2021
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The single vendor requirement ultimately doomed the DoD’s $10B JEDI cloud contract

When the Pentagon killed the JEDI cloud program yesterday, it was the end of a long and bitter road for a project that never seemed to have a chance. The question is why it didn’t work out in the end, and ultimately I think you can blame the DoD’s stubborn adherence to a single vendor requirement, a condition that never made sense to anyone, even the vendor that ostensibly won the deal.

In March 2018, the Pentagon announced a mega $10 billion, decade-long cloud contract to build the next generation of cloud infrastructure for the Department of Defense. It was dubbed JEDI, which aside from the Star Wars reference, was short for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure.

The idea was a 10-year contract with a single vendor that started with an initial two-year option. If all was going well, a five-year option would kick in and finally a three-year option would close things out with earnings of $1 billion a year.

While the total value of the contract had it been completed was quite large, a billion a year for companies the size of Amazon, Oracle or Microsoft is not a ton of money in the scheme of things. It was more about the prestige of winning such a high-profile contract and what it would mean for sales bragging rights. After all, if you passed muster with the DoD, you could probably handle just about anyone’s sensitive data, right?

Regardless, the idea of a single-vendor contract went against conventional wisdom that the cloud gives you the option of working with the best-in-class vendors. Microsoft, the eventual winner of the ill-fated deal acknowledged that the single vendor approach was flawed in an interview in April 2018:

Leigh Madden, who heads up Microsoft’s defense effort, says he believes Microsoft can win such a contract, but it isn’t necessarily the best approach for the DoD. “If the DoD goes with a single award path, we are in it to win, but having said that, it’s counter to what we are seeing across the globe where 80% of customers are adopting a multicloud solution,” Madden told TechCrunch.

Perhaps it was doomed from the start because of that. Yet even before the requirements were fully known there were complaints that it would favor Amazon, the market share leader in the cloud infrastructure market. Oracle was particularly vocal, taking its complaints directly to the former president before the RFP was even published. It would later file a complaint with the Government Accountability Office and file a couple of lawsuits alleging that the entire process was unfair and designed to favor Amazon. It lost every time — and of course, Amazon wasn’t ultimately the winner.

While there was a lot of drama along the way, in April 2019 the Pentagon named two finalists, and it was probably not too surprising that they were the two cloud infrastructure market leaders: Microsoft and Amazon. Game on.

The former president interjected himself directly in the process in August that year, when he ordered the Defense Secretary to review the matter over concerns that the process favored Amazon, a complaint which to that point had been refuted several times over by the DoD, the Government Accountability Office and the courts. To further complicate matters, a book by former defense secretary Jim Mattis claimed the president told him to “screw Amazon out of the $10 billion contract.” His goal appeared to be to get back at Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post newspaper.

In spite of all these claims that the process favored Amazon, when the winner was finally announced in October 2019, late on a Friday afternoon no less, the winner was not in fact Amazon. Instead, Microsoft won the deal, or at least it seemed that way. It wouldn’t be long before Amazon would dispute the decision in court.

By the time AWS re:Invent hit a couple of months after the announcement, former AWS CEO Andy Jassy was already pushing the idea that the president had unduly influenced the process.

“I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal,” Jassy said at that time.

Then came the litigation. In November the company indicated it would be challenging the decision to choose Microsoft charging that it was was driven by politics and not technical merit. In January 2020, Amazon filed a request with the court that the project should stop until the legal challenges were settled. In February, a federal judge agreed with Amazon and stopped the project. It would never restart.

In April the DoD completed its own internal investigation of the contract procurement process and found no wrongdoing. As I wrote at the time:

While controversy has dogged the $10-billion, decade-long JEDI contract since its earliest days, a report by the DoD’s inspector general’s office concluded today that, while there were some funky bits and potential conflicts, overall the contract procurement process was fair and legal and the president did not unduly influence the process in spite of public comments.

Last September the DoD completed a review of the selection process and it once again concluded that Microsoft was the winner, but it didn’t really matter as the litigation was still in motion and the project remained stalled.

The legal wrangling continued into this year, and yesterday the Pentagon finally pulled the plug on the project once and for all, saying it was time to move on as times have changed since 2018 when it announced its vision for JEDI.

The DoD finally came to the conclusion that a single-vendor approach wasn’t the best way to go, and not because it could never get the project off the ground, but because it makes more sense from a technology and business perspective to work with multiple vendors and not get locked into any particular one.

“JEDI was developed at a time when the Department’s needs were different and both the CSPs’ (cloud service providers) technology and our cloud conversancy was less mature. In light of new initiatives like JADC2 (the Pentagon’s initiative to build a network of connected sensors) and AI and Data Acceleration (ADA), the evolution of the cloud ecosystem within DoD, and changes in user requirements to leverage multiple cloud environments to execute mission, our landscape has advanced and a new way ahead is warranted to achieve dominance in both traditional and nontraditional warfighting domains,” said John Sherman, acting DoD chief information officer in a statement.

In other words, the DoD would benefit more from adopting a multicloud, multivendor approach like pretty much the rest of the world. That said, the department also indicated it would limit the vendor selection to Microsoft and Amazon.

“The Department intends to seek proposals from a limited number of sources, namely the Microsoft Corporation (Microsoft) and Amazon Web Services (AWS), as available market research indicates that these two vendors are the only Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) capable of meeting the Department’s requirements,” the department said in a statement.

That’s not going to sit well with Google, Oracle or IBM, but the department further indicated it would continue to monitor the market to see if other CSPs had the chops to handle their requirements in the future.

In the end, the single vendor requirement contributed greatly to an overly competitive and politically charged atmosphere that resulted in the project never coming to fruition. Now the DoD has to play technology catch-up, having lost three years to the histrionics of the entire JEDI procurement process and that could be the most lamentable part of this long, sordid technology tale.

Jul
06
2021
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Nobody wins as DoD finally pulls the plug on controversial $10B JEDI contract

After several years of fighting and jockeying for position by the biggest cloud infrastructure companies in the world, the Pentagon finally pulled the plug on the controversial winner-take-all, $10 billion JEDI contract today. In the end, nobody won.

“With the shifting technology environment, it has become clear that the JEDI cloud contract, which has long been delayed, no longer meets the requirements to fill the DoD’s capability gaps,” a Pentagon spokesperson stated.

The contract procurement process began in 2018 with a call for RFPs for a $10 billion, decade-long contract to handle the cloud infrastructure strategy for The Pentagon. Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb told TechCrunch why they were going with the. single-winner approach: “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said at the time.

From the start though, companies objected to the single-winner approach, believing that the Pentagon would be better served with a multi-vendor approach. Some companies, particularly Oracle believed the procurement process was designed to favor Amazon.

In the end it came down to a pair of finalists — Amazon and Microsoft — and in the end Microsoft won. But Amazon believed that it had superior technology and only lost the deal because of direct interference by the previous president who had open disdain for then-CEO Jeff Bezos (who is also the owner of the Washington Post newspaper).

Amazon decided to fight the decision in court, and after months of delay, the Pentagon made the decision that it was time to move on. In a blog post, Microsoft took a swipe at Amazon for precipitating the delay.

“The 20 months since DoD selected Microsoft as its JEDI partner highlights issues that warrant the attention of policymakers: When one company can delay, for years, critical technology upgrades for those who defend our nation, the protest process needs reform. Amazon filed its protest in November 2019 and its case was expected to take at least another year to litigate and yield a decision, with potential appeals afterward,” Microsoft wrote in its blog post about the end of the deal.

But in a statement of its own, Amazon reiterated its belief that the process was not fairly executed. “We understand and agree with the DoD’s decision. Unfortunately, the contract award was not based on the merits of the proposals and instead was the result of outside influence that has no place in government procurement. Our commitment to supporting our nation’s military and ensuring that our warfighters and defense partners have access to the best technology at the best price is stronger than ever. We look forward to continuing to support the DoD’s modernization efforts and building solutions that help accomplish their critical missions,” a company spokesperson said.

It seems like a fitting end to a project that I felt was doomed from the beginning. From the moment the Pentagon announced this contract with the cutesy twist on the Star Wars name, the procurement process has taken more twists and turns than a TV soap.

In the beginning, there was a lot of sound and fury and it led to a lot of nothing. We move onto whatever cloud procurement process happens next.

Jul
06
2021
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Box takes fight with activist investor public in SEC filing

The war between Box’s current leadership and activist shareholder Starboard took a new turn today with a detailed timeline outlining the two groups’ relationship, thanks to an SEC filing and companion press release. Box is pushing back against a slate of board candidates put forth by Starboard, which wants to shake up the company’s leadership and sell it.

The SEC filing details a lengthy series of phone calls, meetings and other communications between the technology company and Starboard, which has held a stake in Box greater than 5% since September of 2019. Since then shares of Box have risen by around $10 per share.

Today’s news is multi-faceted, but we’ve learned more concerning Starboard’s demands that Box sell itself; how strongly the investor wanted co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie to be fired; and that the company’s complaints about a KKR-led investment into Box that it used to repurchase its shares did not match its behavior, in that Starboard asked to participate in the transaction despite its public statements.

Activist investors, a bit like short-sellers, are either groups that you generally like or do not. In this case, however, we can learn quite a lot from the Box filing. Including the sheer amount of time and communication that it takes to manage such an investor from the perspective of one of its public-market investments.

What follows are key excerpts from Box’s SEC filing on the matter, starting with its early stake and early agreement with Starboard:

  • On September 3, 2019, representatives of Starboard contacted Mr. Levie to inform Mr. Levie that Starboard would be filing a
  • Schedule 13D with the SEC reporting a 7.5% ownership stake in the company.
  • On March 9, 2020, Mr. O’Driscoll and Ms. Barsamian had a call with representatives of Starboard to discuss entering into a settlement agreement with Starboard.
  • On March 22, 2020, the company and Starboard entered into an agreement[.]
    Also on March 23, 2020, Starboard reported beneficial ownership of 7.7% of the outstanding Class A common stock.

Then Box reported earnings, which Starboard appeared to praise:

  • On May 27, 2020, the company reported its fiscal first quarter results, noting a 13% increase in year-over-year revenue, a 900 basis point increase in year-over-year GAAP operating margin and a $36.4 million increase in year-over-year cash flow from operations. Peter Feld, a representative of Starboard, and Mr. Levie had an email conversation related to the company’s first quarter results in which Mr. Feld stated “you guys are on a good path…congrats to the team and keep it up.”
  • Also on May 29, 2020, Starboard reported that it had decreased its beneficial ownership to 6.0% of the outstanding Class A common stock.

The same pattern repeated during Box’s next earnings report:

  • On August 27, 2020, Mr. Levie, Mr. Smith and company IR discussed the company’s earnings release with Starboard. Starboard indicated it was pleased with the rate of margin expansion and where the company was heading. In an email exchange between Mr. Feld and Mr. Levie related to the company’s results, Mr. Feld stated that he was “thrilled to see the company breaking out and performing better both on the top and bottom line. Appreciate you guys working with us and accepting the counsel. Not everyone behaves that way and it is greatly appreciated. Shows your comfort as a leader and a willingness to adapt. Very impressive.”

Then Box reported its next quarter’s results, which was followed by a change in message from Starboard (emphasis TechCrunch):

  • On December 1, 2020, the company announced its fiscal third quarter results, noting an 11% increase in year-over-year revenue, an improvement of 2100 basis points in year-over-year GAAP operating margin and a $36 million increase in year-over-year cash flow from operations. The company also provided guidance regarding its fiscal fourth quarter results, noting that its revised revenue guidance was due to “lower professional services bookings than we noted previously, which creates a roughly $2 million headwind” and that the company was being “prudent in our growth expectations given the macroeconomic challenges that our customers are facing.” The revised guidance for revenue was 1.1% below analysts’ consensus estimates of $198.8 million.
  • On December 2, 2020, Box’s common stock declined approximately 9% from its prior close of $18.54 to $16.91. On December 2, 2020 and December 4, 2020, Mr. Levie, Mr. Smith and Box IR discussed the company’s earnings release with representatives of Starboard. Despite the prior support Mr. Feld communicated to the company, Starboard reversed course and demanded that the company explore a sale of the entire company or fire the company’s CEO, or otherwise face a proxy contest from Starboard. Mr. Feld further stated that the company should not turn down an offer from a third party to buy the entire company “in the low twenties” and that Starboard would be a seller at such a price.

Recall that Box shares are now in the mid-$26s. At the time, however, Box shares lost value (emphasis: TechCrunch)

  • On December 16, 2020, two weeks after earnings, the company’s stock price closed at $18.85, which was above where it was trading immediately prior to the announcement of the company’s fiscal third quarter results on December 1, 2020.
  • On January 11, 2021, Starboard disclosed that it had increased its beneficial ownership to 7.9% of the outstanding Class A common stock.
  • On January 15, 2021, Mr. Lazar and Ms. Barsamian had a call with representatives from Starboard. Mr. Feld expressed his view that, while the company’s Convertible Senior Notes were executed on favorable terms, he was not supportive of the transaction. He reiterated his demand that the company sell itself and indicated that if the company did not do so then it must replace its CEO or otherwise face a proxy contest from Starboard to replace the CEO.

Over the next few months, Box bought SignRequest, reported earnings, and engaged external parties to try to help it bolster shareholder value. Then the KKR deal came onto the table:

  • On March 31, 2021, the Strategy Committee met to discuss the status of the strategic review. At such time, the Strategy Committee was in receipt of a proposal from KKR pursuant to which KKR and certain partners would make an investment in the form of convertible preferred stock at an initial yield of 3%, which had been negotiated down from KKR’s proposal of 7% yield in its preliminary indication of interest in early March.

The deal was unanimously approved by Box’s board, and announced on April 8th, 2021. Starboard was not stoked about the transaction, however:

  • Later on April 8, 2021, Ms. Mayer and Mr. Lazar had a call with representatives of Starboard. Mr. Feld expressed Starboard’s strong displeasure with the results of the strategic review. During the conversation, Mr. Feld indicated that he would stop the fight immediately if Mr. Levie were replaced.
  • On April 14, 2021, Ms. Mayer, Mr. Lazar and Ms. Barsamian had a call with Mr. Feld. Despite his prior statements, Mr. Feld now indicated that Starboard was not willing to sell its shares of Class A common stock at $21 or $22 per share. Mr. Feld requested that the company release KKR from its obligation to vote in favor of the company as a gesture of good faith. Mr. Feld reiterated Starboard’s desire to replace Mr. Levie as CEO and indicated that he would like to join the Board of Directors if the company did so. Ms. Mayer offered Mr. Feld the opportunity to execute a non-disclosure agreement to receive more information about the strategic review process, which Mr. Feld immediately declined.

Box was like, all right, but Feld doesn’t get to be on the board:

  • On April 20, 2021, Ms. Mayer and Mr. Lazar had a call with representatives of Starboard. Mr. Feld stated that Starboard would not move forward with its planned director nominations if Starboard were offered the opportunity to participate in the KKR-Led Transaction and Mr. Feld were appointed to the Board of Directors. Mr. Feld reiterated that he was not willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
  • On April 27, 2021, Mr. Park had a discussion with Mr. Feld. During this conversation, Mr. Feld reiterated his desire for Starboard to participate as an investor in the KKR-Led Transaction.
  • On April 28, 2021, Ms. Mayer and Mr. Lazar informed Mr. Feld that the Board of Directors was amenable to allowing Starboard to participate in the KKR-Led Transaction but would not appoint Mr. Feld as a director. Mr. Feld indicated that there is no path to a settlement that doesn’t include appointing him to the Board of Directors.

And then Starboard initiated a proxy war.

What to make of all of this? That trying to shake up a company from the position of a minority stake is not impossible, with Starboard able to exercise influence on Box despite having a sub-10% ownership position. And that Box was not willing to put a person on the board that wanted to fire its CEO.

What’s slightly silly about all of this is that the fight is coming at a time when Box is doing better than it has in some time. Its profitability has improved greatly, and in its most recent quarter the company topped expectations and raised its forward financial guidance.

There were times in Box’s history when it may have deserved a whacking for poor performance, but now? It’s slightly weird. Also recall that Starboard has already made quite a lot of money on its Box stake, with the company’s value appreciating sharply since the investor bought in.

Most media coverage is surrounding the public criticism by Starboard of the KKR deal and its private demand to be let into the deal. That dynamic is easily explained: Starboard thought that the deal wouldn’t make it money, but later decided that it could. So it changed its tune; if you are expecting an investor to do anything but try to maximize returns, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

A person close to the company told TechCrunch that the current situation should be a win-win for everyone involved, but Starboard is not seeing it that way. “If you’re a near term shareholder, [like Starboard] then the path Box has taken has already been better. And if you’re a long term shareholder, Box sees significantly more upside. […] So overwhelmingly, the company believes this is the best path for shareholders and it’s already been proven out to be that,” the person said.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at the Deep Analysis, who has been watching the content management space for many years, says the battle isn’t much of a surprise given that the two have been at odds pretty much from the start of the relationship.

“Like any activist investor Starboard is interested in a quick increase in shareholder values and a flip. Box is in it for the long run. Further, it seems that Starboard may have mistimed or miscalculated their moves, Box clearly was not as weak as they appeared to believe and Box has been doing well over the past year. Bringing in KKR was the start of a big fight back, and the proposed changes couldn’t make it any clearer that they are fed up with Starboard and ready to fight back hard,” Pelz-Sharpe said.

He added that publicly revealing details of the two companies’ interactions is a bit unusual, but he thinks it was appropriate here.

“Actually naming and shaming, detailing Starboard’s moves and seemingly contradictory statements, is unusual but it may be effective. Starboard won’t back down without a fight, but from an investor relations/PR perspective this looks bad for them and it may well be time to walk away. That being said, I wouldn’t bet on Starboard walking away, as Silicon Valley has a habit of moving forward when they should be walking back from increasingly damaging situations”

What comes next is a vote on Box’s board makeup, which should happen later this summer. Let’s see who wins.

It’s worth noting that we attempted to contact Starboard Value, but as of publication they had not gotten back to us. Box indicated that the press release and SEC filing speak for themselves.

 

 

May
13
2021
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Busy day at VMware ended yesterday with Ragurham as CEO and COO Poonen exiting

They say for every door that opens another closes, and the executive shuffle at VMware is certainly proving that old chestnut true. Four months after Pat Gelsinger stepped down as CEO to return to run Intel, the virtual machine pioneer announced yesterday that long-time exec Raghu Raghuram was taking over that role.

That set in motion another change when COO Sanjay Poonen, whom some had speculated might get the CEO job, announced yesterday afternoon on Twitter that he was leaving the company after seven years.

Coincidence? We think not.

Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research, says that he was surprised that Poonen didn’t get the job, but perhaps the VMware board valued Raghuram’s product focus more highly. “At 50, he [would have been] a long-term solution, and he did a great job on the End User Computing (EUC) side of the product before becoming COO. I guess that it is still not VMware’s core business,” he said.

Regardless, Mueller still liked the choice of Raghuram as CEO, saying that he brought stability and reliability to the position, but he sees him likely as a solid interim solution for several years as the company spins out from Dell and becomes a fully independent organization again.

“Obviously the board wanted to have someone who knows product, and has been there a long time, and is associated with the VMware core success — so that creates relatability [and stability].” He added, “At 57 he is the transitional candidate, and a good choice, a veteran who is happy to run this two-three or maybe five years and won’t go anywhere [in the interim]. And the board has time to find a long-term solution,” Mueller told me.

Mark Lockwood, lead analyst on VMware at Gartner, sees Raghuram as the right man for the job, with no reservations, one who will continue to implement the current strategy while putting his own stamp on the position.

“That the VMware board chose someone in Raghu Raghuram who has been the technical strategy executive inside the company for years speaks volumes about the board’s comfort level with the existing strategy trajectory of the company. Mr. Raghuram will most certainly steer the company slightly differently than Mr. Gelsinger did, but at least from the outside, the CEO appointment appears to be a stamp of approval on the company’s broad portfolio,” Lockwood said.

As for Poonen, he says that the writing was on the wall when he didn’t get the promotion. “Although Sanjay Poonen has indeed been a valuable executive for VMware, it was always unlikely that he would remain if not chosen for the CEO role,” Lockwood said.

Stephen Elliot, an analyst at IDC, was also bullish on the Raghuram appointment, saying he brings a broad understanding of the company, and that’s important to VMware right now. “He understands VMware customers, the technologies, M&A, and the importance of execution and its impact on profitable growth. He has been central to almost every successful strategy the company has created, and been a leader for product strategy and execution. He has a very good balance of making tactical and strategic moves to anticipate the value VMware can deliver for customers in a one-three year horizon,” Elliot said.

Elliot thinks Poonen will be just fine and will find a landing spot pretty quickly. “He is another very talented executive; he will become a CEO elsewhere, and another company will be very lucky,” he said. He says that it will take time to see if there is any impact from that, but he believes that VMware shouldn’t have trouble attracting other executive talent to fill in any gaps.

For every executive move, there are choices for replacements, and subsequent fallout from those choices. We saw a full-fledged example of that yesterday on display at VMware. If these industry experts are right, the company chose stability and reliability and a deep understanding of product. That would seem to be solid enough reasoning on the part of the board, even though Poonen leaving seems to be collateral damage from the decision, and a big loss for the company.

May
10
2021
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Activist investor Starboard Value makes official bid for Box board seats in letter

Last week activist investor Starboard delivered a public letter rebuking Box for what it perceives as underperformance. Today the firm, which owns 8% of Box stock, making it the company’s largest stock holder, took it a step further with an official slate of four candidates it will be putting up at the next stockholder’s meeting.

While the company rehashed many of the same complaints as in last week’s letter, this week it explicitly stated its intent to run its own slate of candidates for the Box board. “Therefore, in accordance with the Company’s governance deadlines and in order to preserve our rights as stockholders, we have delivered a formal notice to Box nominating four highly qualified director candidates (the “Nominees”) for election to the Board at the Annual Meeting,” Starboard wrote in a public letter to Box.

Box responded in a press release that the Board as currently constituted categorically rejects this attempt by Starboard to take over additional seats.

“The Box Board of Directors does not believe the changes to the Board proposed by Starboard are warranted or in the best interests of all stockholders. The Box Board has been consistently responsive to feedback from all of its stockholders, including suggestions from Starboard, and open-minded toward all value enhancing opportunities. Furthermore, Starboard’s statements do not accurately depict the progress Box has made,” the Board wrote in a statement this morning.

Box further points out that the company overhauled the Board last year with three new board members specifically receiving Starboard approval.

What is driving Starboard to take this action? Like any good activist investor it wants a higher stock price and is seeking more growth from Box. Activist investors often come in and try to extract value by brute force when they perceive the company is underperforming. The end game, were they to be successful, could involve removing Levie as CEO or more likely selling the company and grabbing its profit on the way out.

Box asserted that “Starboard’s statements do not accurately depict the progress Box has made,” highlighting some of its recent financial performance, including “a $127 million increase in free cash flow in fiscal 2021.” The former private-market darling also argued that its fiscal 2021 “revenue growth rate plus free cash flow margin [came to more than] 26%,” which beat its own target of 25% and was “nearly double” what it managed in its fiscal 2020.

This is a good time for a “yes, but“: Yes, but Box’s ability to improve its profitability does not change the fact that its growth rate has been in steady decline for years. And while a company’s growth rate can cover nearly any sin, slowing growth that has already slipped into the single digits doesn’t cut Box much slack. (For reference, in its most recent quarter, the fourth of its fiscal 2021, Box grew just 8% on a year-over-year basis.)

It’s worth noting that the company did promise “accelerated growth and higher operating margins in the years ahead” in its most recent earnings call, but the company’s recent $500 million investment from KKR particularly irked Starboard, which asserts that it was akin to “buying the vote.”

“[Box] made several poor capital allocation decisions, including its recent entry into a financing transaction that we believe serves no business purpose and was done in the face of a potential election contest with Starboard at the 2021 Annual Meeting of Stockholders.”

Now it’s becoming a battle over more board seats. Box is putting up Levie, Verisign CFO Dana Evan and Peter Leav, CEO of McAfee and former CEO of BMC. Evan sits on the boards of Domo and Survey Monkey in addition to Box, while Leav previously served on the board of ProofPoint, which was acquired last month by Thoma Bravo for over $12 billion.

While Starboard’s nominees come with impressive resumes, it’s worth pointing out that they mostly lack direct experience working with an enterprise SaaS company like Box. The folks on the slate include Deborah S. Conrad, former executive at Intel; Peter A. Feld, Starboard’s head of research; John R. McCormack, former CEO of WebSense and Xavier D. Williams, a director of American Virtual Cloud Technologies, a public company on $170 million run rate. Box made $771 million last fiscal year.

The vote will take place at the Box stockholder’s meeting, which has traditionally been held in late June or early July. To this point, the company has not put out the exact date publicly.

Dec
29
2020
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VMware files suit against former exec for moving to rival company

Earlier this month, when Nutanix announced it was hiring former VMware COO Rajiv Ramaswami as CEO, it looked like a good match. What’s more, it pulled a key player from a market rival. Well, it seems VMware took exception to losing the executive, and filed a lawsuit against him yesterday for breach of contract.

The company is claiming that Ramaswami had inside knowledge of the key plans of his former company and that he should have told them that he was interviewing for a job at a rival organization.

Rajiv Ramaswami failed to honor his fiduciary and contractual obligations to VMware. For at least two months before resigning from the company, at the same time he was working with senior leadership to shape VMware’s key strategic vision and direction, Mr. Ramaswami also was secretly meeting with at least the CEO, CFO, and apparently the entire Board of Directors of Nutanix, Inc. to become Nutanix’s Chief Executive Officer. He joined Nutanix as its CEO only two days after leaving VMware,” the company wrote in a statement.

As you can imagine, Nutanix didn’t agree, countering in a statement of its own that, “VMware’s lawsuit seeks to make interviewing for a new job wrongful. We view VMware’s misguided action as a response to losing a deeply valued and respected member of its leadership team. Mr. Ramaswami and Nutanix have gone above and beyond to be proactive and cooperative with VMware throughout the transition.”

At the time of the hiring, analyst Holger Mueller from Constellation Research noted that the two companies were primary competitors and hiring Ramawami was was a big win for Nutanix. “So hiring Ramaswami brings both an expert for multi-cloud to the Nutanix helm, as well as weakening a key competitor from a talent perspective,” he told me earlier this month.

Mueller doesn’t see much chance of the suit succeeding. “It’s been a long time since the last lawsuit happened in Silicon Valley [involving] a tech exec jumping ship. Being an ‘Employment at Will’ state, these suits are typically unsuccessful,” he told me this morning.

He added, “The interesting part of the VMware vs Nutanix lawsuit is, does a high ranking executive interviewing a competitor equal a break of confidentiality by itself, or does material information have to be breached to reach the point. Traditionally the right to (confidentially) interview has been protected by the courts,” he said.

It’s unclear what the end game would be in this type of legal action, but it does complicate matters for Nutanix as it transitions to a new chief executive. Ramaswami took over from co-founder Dheeraj Pandey, who announced plans to leave the post last summer.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Superior Court of the State of California, County of Santa Clara.

Sep
08
2020
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The $10B JEDI contract is locked, loaded and still completely stuck

The other day I took a moment to count the number of stories we’ve done on TechCrunch on the DoD’s $10 billion, decade-long, winner-take-all, JEDI cloud contract. This marks the 30th time we’ve written about this deal over the last two years, and it comes after a busy week last week in JEDI cloud contract news.

That we’re still writing about this is fairly odd if you consider the winner was announced last October when the DoD chose Microsoft, but there is no end in sight to the on-going drama that is this procurement process.

Government contracts don’t typically catch our attention at TechCrunch, but this one felt different early on. There was the size and scope of the deal of course. There was the cute play on the “Star Wars” theme. There was Oracle acting like a batter complaining to the umpire before the first pitch was thrown. There was the fact that everyone thought Amazon would win until it didn’t.

There was a lot going on. In fact, there’s still a lot going on with this story.

Oracle doth protest too much

Let’s start with Oracle, which dispatched CEO Safra Catz to the White House in April 2018 even before the RFP had been written. She was setting the stage to complain that the deal was going to be set up to favor Amazon, something that Oracle alleged until the day Microsoft was picked the winner.

Catz had been on the Trump transition team and so had the ear of the president. While the president certainly interjected himself in this process, it’s not known how much influence that particular meeting might have had. Suffice to say that it was only the first volley in Oracle’s long war against the JEDI contract procurement process.

It would include official complaints with the Government Accountability Office and a federal lawsuit worth not coincidentally $10 billion. It would claim the contract favored Amazon. It would argue that the one-vendor approach wasn’t proper. It would suggest that because the DoD had some former Amazon employees helping write the RFP, that it somehow favored Amazon. The GAO and two court cases found otherwise, ruling against Oracle every single time.

It’s worth noting that the Court of Appeals ruling last week indicated that Oracle didn’t even meet some of the basic contractual requirements, all the while complaining about the process itself from the start.

Amazon continues to press protests

Nobody was more surprised that Amazon lost the deal than Amazon itself. It still believes to this day that it is technically superior to Microsoft and that it can offer the DoD the best approach. The DoD doesn’t agree. On Friday, it reaffirmed its choice of Microsoft. But that is not the end of this, not by a long shot.

Amazon has maintained since the decision was made last October that the decision-making process had been tainted by presidential interference in the process. They believe that because of the president’s personal dislike of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, he inserted himself in the process to prevent Bezos’ company from winning that deal.

In January, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until this could all be sorted out. In February, a judge halted work on the project until Amazon’s complaints could be heard by the court. It is September and that order is still in place.

In a blog post on Friday, Amazon reiterated its case, which is based on presidential interference and what it believes is technical superiority. “In February, the Court of Federal Claims stopped performance on JEDI. The Court determined AWS’s protest had merit, and that Microsoft’s proposal likely failed to meet a key solicitation requirement and was likely deficient and ineligible for award. Our protest detailed how pervasive these errors were (impacting all six technical evaluation factors), and the Judge stopped the DoD from moving forward because the very first issue she reviewed demonstrated serious flaws,” Amazon wrote in the post.

Microsoft for the win?

Microsoft on the other hand went quietly about its business throughout this process. It announced Azure Stack, a kind of portable cloud that would work well as a field operations computer system. It beefed up its government security credentials.

Even though Microsoft didn’t agree with the one-vendor approach, indicating that the government would benefit more from the multivendor approach many of its customers were taking, it made clear if those were the rules, it was in it to win it — and win it did, much to the surprise of everyone, especially Amazon.

Yet here we are, almost a year later and in spite of the fact that the DoD found once again, after further review, that Microsoft is still the winner, the contract remains in limbo. Until that pending court case is resolved, we will continue to watch and wait and wonder if this will ever be truly over, and the JEDI cloud contract will actually be implemented.

Sep
04
2020
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DoD reaffirms Microsoft has won JEDI cloud contract, but Amazon legal complaints still pending

We have seen a lot of action this week as the DoD tries to finally determine the final winner of the $10 billion, decade-long DoD JEDI cloud contract. Today, the DoD released a statement that after reviewing the proposals from finalists Microsoft and Amazon again, it reiterated that Microsoft was the winner of the contract.

“The Department has completed its comprehensive re-evaluation of the JEDI Cloud proposals and determined that Microsoft’s proposal continues to represent the best value to the Government. The JEDI Cloud contract is a firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that will make a full range of cloud computing services available to the DoD,” the DoD said in a statement.

This comes on the heels of yesterday’s Court of Appeals decision denying Oracle’s argument that the procurement process was flawed and that there was a conflict of interest because a former Amazon employee helped write the requirements for the RFP.

While the DoD has determined that it believes that Microsoft should still get the contract, after selecting them last October, that doesn’t mean this is the end of the line for this long-running saga. In fact, a federal judge halted work on the project in February pending a hearing on an ongoing protest from Amazon, which believes it should have won based on merit, and the fact it believes the president interfered with the procurement process to prevent Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, from getting the lucrative contract.

The DoD confirmed that the project could not begin until the legal wrangling was settled. “While contract performance will not begin immediately due to the Preliminary Injunction Order issued by the Court of Federal Claims on February 13, 2020, DoD is eager to begin delivering this capability to our men and women in uniform,” the DoD reported in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said the company was ready to get to work on the project as soon as it got the OK to proceed. “We appreciate that after careful review, the DoD confirmed that we offered the right technology and the best value. We’re ready to get to work and make sure that those who serve our country have access to this much needed technology,” a Microsoft spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Meanwhile, in a blog post published late this afternoon, Amazon made it clear that it was unhappy with today’s outcome and will continue to pursue legal remedy for what they believe to be presidential interference that has threatened the integrity of the procurement process. Here’s how they concluded the blog post:

We strongly disagree with the DoD’s flawed evaluation and believe it’s critical for our country that the government and its elected leaders administer procurements objectively and in a manner that is free from political influence. The question we continue to ask ourselves is whether the President of the United States should be allowed to use the budget of the Department of Defense to pursue his own personal and political ends? Throughout our protest, we’ve been clear that we won’t allow blatant political interference, or inferior technology, to become an acceptable standard. Although these are not easy decisions to make, and we do not take them lightly, we will not back down in the face of targeted political cronyism or illusory corrective actions, and we will continue pursuing a fair, objective, and impartial review.

While today’s statement from DoD appears to take us one step closer to the end of the road for this long-running drama, it won’t be over until the court rules on Amazon’s arguments. It’s clear from today’s blog post that Amazon has no intention of stepping down.

Note: We have  updated this story with content from an Amazon blog post responding to this news.

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