June 27, 2022

How do you deal with an economic downturn?

Economic downturns. Stock market crashes. Mass layoffs. Corporate crashes.

Tom Siebel has seen it all before.

With economic uncertainty the order of the day again, the longtime tech executive isn’t surprised. To hear him tell it, Siebel, who worked for Oracle in the 1980s and early 1990s before founding Siebel Systems Inc., which he sold to Oracle in 2006, has been preparing for the situation for years.

“I think the next year is going to be pretty interesting, as in that great Chinese curse that says, ‘May you live in interesting times,'” Siebel said in an interview last week. “I think we are there.”

But this time around, he arguably has his work cut out for him. His latest company, C3.ai Inc. — No. 43 on the 2022 Middle Market 75 List from the Business Journal and San Francisco Business Times — lost $192 million in its most recent fiscal year, a tally that was more than three times larger than the year before. Meanwhile, the Redwood City company’s stock price is trading at around $18 a share, down 90% from the peek it reached in December 2020, soon after it went public at $42 a share.

Siebel spoke with the Business Journal about why he’s not worried about an economic downturn, how his company is responding to the uncertainty and why he’s not a fan of remote work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

You’ve been through a few bear markets and recessions over the years. How would you compare what we’re seeing now to the previous ones you have managed through?

I don’t think this is as dire as 2008, when we were looking at a potential meltdown of the entire global financial system. I’d put this in the same league as what we saw from 2000 to 2002. It looks about the same to me.

How worried are you about this one?

As horrible as they are and as much pain as they cause, recessions are healthy events. They are kind of like forest fires, which are environmentally healthy events. If you prevent them from happening for too many years, the forest explodes. See California for details.

How long do you expect this to last?

When we get to the point where everybody decides that, “I’m never going to own an NFT, or never going to own a cryptocurrency, or never going to buy a high-tech stock,” then we’ll know it’s safe. Then we’ll get back to business again.

How prepared are you for a downturn?

I’ve spent my entire professional career preparing for the next economic downturn, because I know it’s coming. It’s a 100% probability. They used to come about seven to 10 years apart. But this one is coming after the longest economic expansion ever, so (it) may go a little long.