SAN FRANCISCO -- Former Renault COO Patrick Pelata had plenty of job possibilities after leaving the French automaker last summer. So how did the European product planner who helped revive Nissan end up selling customer-retention software from an office here on Market Street?
Pelata, 57, says he was intrigued by the kind of data mining software that had become a focus of Salesforce.com. So after declining CEO Marc Benioff's first attempt to hire him in 2011, Pelata joined the company last September as head of the automotive division.
In an interview, he called it "a structural transformation" in his career.
Although San Francisco-based Salesforce is relatively new to the auto industry, the 14-year-old company is a major force in the software world, with revenue of $2.2 billion in 2012. Its $24 billion market capitalization is nearly twice that of Renault.
Salesforce sells cloud-based software for sales, service, marketing, social media and customer retention and has a client list that includes GE, Wells Fargo, Burberry, Facebook, Bayer, Vodafone and the 2012 Obama presidential campaign.
But the customer relations management field is crowded, represented in the auto sector by such established software providers as Oracle, ADP, SAP and Microsoft's alliance with Dominion.
To gain an edge, Salesforce has expanded into social media data mining in a big way. Last year it spent $1 billion to acquire two software firms, Radian6 and Buddy Media, that help companies track and engage social-media chatter.
Forbes magazine has named Salesforce the world's "most innovative company" two years in a row, citing its willingness to invest in strategic acquisitions. By comparison, Amazon placed third in Forbes' "most innovative company" rankings in 2012. Google was 24th, and Apple was 26th.
Two years ago, Benioff made his first big move in the auto world. He visited Toyota President Akio Toyoda in Tokyo, and the two men agreed to create Toyota Friend, a private social network for Toyota owners. That success led Benioff to expand the company's auto division that Pelata now heads.
Benioff and Pelata met in 2010 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where they discussed using Salesforce software to speed decision-making inside Renault.