Editor's note: This story was part of TheStreet's 10-part Top Business Leaders of Tomorrow series.

SAN FRANCISCO ( TheStreet) -- The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression opened doors for savvy executives with ideas that help businesses grow. Few took advantage of that opportunity more than the leaders of cloud-computing pioneer Salesforce.com ( CRM).

"We're in the right place at the right time," said George Hu, Salesforce's executive vice president of marketing and alliances. He oversees the company's marketing and recently became the head of its Force.com application-development product. "There's no better place to be right now."

Salesforce started out as a product for managing sales and customers, but has quickly become a leader in cloud computing, services that enable companies to store information online. In recent years, the company has set itself apart from larger competitors by adding social-networking tools and services that help people build applications for Apple's ( AAPL) iPhone and other smartphones.
George Hu
George Hu, Salesforce's executive vice president of marketing and alliances.

Like many tech startups of its day, Salesforce was founded by four programmers in a San Francisco apartment in 1999. Hu joined Salesforce in 2002 at age 28 after earning a master's of business administration at Stanford. He has helped the firm ramp up from 150 employees to almost 5,000.

"You can usually tell within the first couple of meetings, whether you're a cultural fit for a company," said Hu, now 36, thinking back on his early interviews at Salesforce. "I was impressed with how passionate and smart everyone was."

That energy has helped Salesforce increase revenue every quarter since it went public in 2004. This year has been especially successful for the company, which has boosted the number of customers it serves by 30% to 82,400 as of July 31.

The company's shares have returned 43% this year, making Salesforce the No. 7 stock in the 76-member S&P 500 Information Technology Index, which has gained 2.2% during the period.

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More than half of analysts who follow the stock rate it "buy," including Kaufman Bros., which expects the stock to jump 33% to $140. Janney Montgomery said in a recent research report the company has a 50% chance of being acquired during the next two years, by companies such as Microsoft ( MSFT), IBM ( IBM), SAP ( SAP) and Oracle ( ORCL).

Hu said Salesforce's strong performance in a weak market reflects the years it took to expand beyond small businesses and to build an international presence. Revenue from Asia has grown 54% annually, on average, during the past two years, while its U.S. sales have climbed 29%, according to Bloomberg data. Earlier this month, the company said it would build a data center in Tokyo through a partnership with NTT Com.

Future growth will likely come from its application-development tool Force.com and Chatter, a product the company released in July that relies on a Facebook-like "wall" to help workers communicate with each other.

"It used to be 'why can't all applications work like Amazon?' " Hu said. "Now it's 'why can't all applications work like Facebook?' "

Hu expects cloud-computing demand to increase by 26% a year through 2015 as more companies see how these services can cut costs. Larger rivals such as Amazon.com ( AMZN), IBM and Google ( GOOG) have made inroads in the growing market, but Hu doesn't feel threatened. In fact, Salesforce has partnered with some of these companies, including Amazon.

"No one is beating the drum for cloud computing more than them," Hu said. "That's great for us."

-- Written by Danielle Kost in Boston.











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