SAN FRANCISCO — Marc Benioff is like the Salesforce Tower: He looms over this city.
At 1,070 feet, the tower is the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi. Mr. Benioff moved Salesforce into it in January, right before his software company became the largest private employer in the city.
Mr. Benioff, who is 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, is as hard to miss as his tower. He’s forceful, flamboyant and quotable, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into his city.
This week he stepped out onto a broader stage, purchasing Time magazine with his wife, Lynne, for $ 190 million. The longtime summit of East Coast journalism has now, after a stop with temporary owners in Des Moines, been acquired by a Westerner. It is a development that would have been unthinkable to generations of Time editors.
Even Mr. Benioff did not suspect this was coming.
“I didn’t realize two weeks ago I was going to buy Time,” he said in an interview late Sunday, a few hours after the deal was announced.
The interview was classic Benioff. He said he did not have a few moments to be interviewed by phone because he was “on crazy Dreamforce lockdown,” a reference to the annual Salesforce convention, which begins next week. Besides, he was getting a massage. But he agreed to answer questions by text, which he proceeded to do for two hours.
[Time’s shrinking sales and profits made it difficult to sell the magazine, but now it moves into a new era]
The deal is tech’s second try at Time, the premier American newsmagazine for much of the 20th century. In early 2000 — right as Salesforce was starting up — the internet pioneer AOL bought Time Warner for $ 165 billion. Heralded as a deal that would unite the fledgling digital world with the sturdy physical assets of traditional media, it was a disaster for the ages.
Mr. Benioff, who will turn 54 this month and whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $ 6.7 billion, emphasized he was not going to get editorially involved in the magazine. He ignored questions about how much he would invest in Time, whose resources and vision have dwindled over the decades, and whether people should again be worried about the merging of tech and traditional media.
He repeatedly said Meredith, the Iowa media company that was selling him Time, would be a partner. Meredith will provide the Benioffs with services such as consumer marketing, subscription fulfillment, paper purchasing and printing.
“I especially liked Meredith’s core values,” he said. “I have followed them since I started Salesforce.” He noted Meredith’s corporate focus on volunteerism, “something that is very important to me as well.”
Lynne Benioff, 43, was a publicist during the dot-com boom. She serves on the board of several organizations and was a co-founder in 2011 of a short-term residential community for homeless families in San Francisco. She declined to be interviewed.
The hands-off policy might not last, given the deep gloom over physical magazines.
“Marc Benioff is a guy who wants whatever he touches to succeed,” said Phil Bronstein, a longtime Bay Area newsman. “If that’s going to require him to be involved, he’ll do it.”
Mr. Benioff is deeply embedded in the Bay Area. His grandfather helped build the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, and his father ran a chain of clothing stores in the city. He began writing software as a teenager and briefly wrote code in the mid-1980s at Apple during the original tenure of Steve Jobs. But he first broke into prominence during a 13-year stint at Oracle, a dominant supplier of databases and other software. There Mr. Benioff was schooled in sales and strategy by one of Silicon Valley’s most brash leaders, Larry Ellison.
Mr. Benioff, though he calls Mr. Ellison his mentor, broke from Oracle’s practices in significant ways when he started Salesforce. His start-up, founded in an apartment on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill in 1999, opted not to sell software that customers would install on their own computers. Rather, Salesforce ran its offerings — which initially automated sales tasks like tracking customer histories — on its own computers and delivered them to corporations over the internet.
This strategy reduced technical expenses and headaches for customers, while allowing Salesforce to make initial sales to small groups of employees at companies that would expand over time.
It was a risky bet, because the web could be unreliable. But what would later be called a “cloud” model gradually became the dominant way for start-ups to deliver software. Even Mr. Ellison, who once derided the term, was an early investor in Salesforce and has turned Oracle into a major supplier of cloud-based offerings.
Mr. Benioff, who has said he “had an incredible feeling of unfulfillment” at Oracle, was equally determined to make his own company more than a vehicle for making money. Salesforce popularized what he called the 1-1-1 model of corporate philanthropy, by which companies contribute 1 percent of equity, 1 percent of employee hours and 1 percent of company products to communities they serve.
“The miraculous thing about his history as a businessperson is that he has found a way to turn being a really good and caring person into a business asset,” said David Kirkpatrick, a Benioff friend who runs the Techonomy conferences. “For instance, his historic opposition to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signing that awful anti-gay rights law in 2015 emerged out of genuine personal outrage and his sense of justice. But it turned into a tremendous branding positive for Salesforce.”
Mr. Benioff has given more than $ 200 million to Bay Area hospitals, which are now named after him. And like a number of billionaire tech philanthropists, he has plunged into efforts to try to reshape education.
But where other tech donors have focused on promulgating their own education reforms, such as reducing the size of public high schools or expanding charter schools, the Salesforce chief has taken a more local, holistic approach.
Through Salesforce.org, his company’s nonprofit arm, Mr. Benioff has pledged $ 100 million over a decade to improve educational resources for Bay Area schools. Since 2012, Salesforce.org has provided $ 27 million to San Francisco public schools and $ 7.7 million to Oakland public schools.
Among other things, the San Francisco Unified School District has used the money to develop computer science curriculums. It has also hired additional math teachers, reducing the average class size across eighth-grade math to 24 students from 33. Oakland has used the Salesforce funds in part to bolster computer science education.
As a result of his support for a variety of local school projects, Mr. Benioff has largely escaped the withering criticism that other tech billionaires, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, have faced for their school initiatives.
“Other billionaires tend to hop around different places, leaving half-completed reforms in their wake,” said Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University who studies philanthropy. “It will be interesting to see if his education investments have more staying power.”
Mr. Benioff is not as dramatic in his display of wealth as Mr. Ellison, who is a collector of costly cars, homes and yachts — and a winner of the America’s Cup sailing race. But the Benioffs have multiple homes in San Francisco and a residential compound on the Big Island of Hawaii, and he has hosted private concerts by his favorite musical artists. Stevie Wonder performed at the couple’s wedding, as well as at a fund-raiser that Mr. Benioff hosted for President Barack Obama.
During the interview Sunday night, Mr. Benioff sent cartoons; links to Time stories on YouTube; chunks of what sounded like news releases but were, he insisted, original (“Time is the best fit for us, and most reflects our values and interests”); discussions of his and his interviewer’s Judaism; and quite a bit more. It is impossible to imagine Mr. Zuckerberg, for example, behaving like this with a journalist.
But if Mr. Benioff was very charming, he was not very forthcoming. His most revealing moment was when he said, “I live with a beginner’s mind,” and then texted a screenshot of a quote from the Zen master Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
It was a momentary glimpse of the tremendous freedom that tech billionaires are afforded. The world is both their plaything and, Mr. Benioff stresses, their responsibility.
“My power,” he said, “was that I didn’t really want to do anything but I was open to all possibilities.”