Kurt MarkoContributing Editor
Steve Appleton, Survivor
It was the winter of 1982. I was on Christmas break when I met a budding entrepreneur with visions of silicon success who had moved back to Boise, Idaho, after a stint with now long-forgotten but once leading-edge memory developer Mostek. Ward Parkinson decided he had a better way to design and build memory chips, and figured Idaho was just as good a place as any to get started. Parkinson offered me, a budding engineer just finishing up my Master's at Stanford, a job. The catch: I had to quit school and come to work right away. It was an attractive offer for a kid whose family had relocated to Boise--the chance to work in the field you were studying and loved, leading-edge semiconductor development, right in your own backyard, but I declined. I wasn't about to quit Stanford so close to the goal line. Ward and I went our separate ways, but a couple years later, things were looking up at Micron and we talked again. This time, after my own stint at Mostek, I was ready. I started with Micron in the summer of 1984, about the time Steve Appleton was being promoted to section supervisor in the company's new Fab 2.
Appleton didn't have the benefit of an engineering degree. He landed in Idaho on a tennis scholarship to Boise State, which didn't even have an engineering program at the time. Graduating in the midst of a tough recession, he just needed a job, and shoveling wafers on the graveyard shift at $5 an hour wasn't such a bad gig in an isolated outpost like Boise. Who knew, maybe this Micron thing just might make it. The company had already secured the financial support of Idaho's version of venture capital, the deep pockets of potato baron J.R. Simplot, and had moved out of its original home in the basement of a dentist's office to a new building on the edge of town. Things were looking up.
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By the time I arrived, Micron was shipping its first product, a 64 KB (yes, that's kilobytes) DRAM and was just finishing work on its second fabrication line. That's about the time Appleton's drive and initiative had propelled him from a line worker on Micron's high-tech assembly line to a supervisor in the shiny new fab.
In those days, Micron was still a lean (read: penny-pinching) organization. Very few people, save the founders, had offices. My new home was a bullpen replete with a row of desks used by Appleton and his fellow supervisors for meetings with their shift crews to discuss the latest defect reports, chip yield numbers, and production plans. Since Micron used a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift schedule, and the meetings always occurred before the workday, the bullpen was empty by the time I arrived. But Appleton had his own desk and would occasionally swing by, so we saw each other now and then.
As an engineer working on semiconductor process development, I had much more contact with Micron's senior management, like the still technically focused Ward Parkinson and the various process and design section managers, than Appleton. Yet with Micron's focus on manufacturing efficiency--a lot of my work consisted of figuring out how to eliminate steps in the chip-making process --it was clear a sharp guy like Appleton, coming up through the trenches, had a future here…that is, if this place had a future.
By the beginning of 1985, the DRAM business was in the tank, and the big Japanese firms were dumping chips just to keep their expensive fabs running. Memory is the mother of all boom and bust industries, and we were entering a nose dive. In February, Micron faced a life-or-death moment. For half the employees, it was the latter. In a dramatic, late-afternoon meeting, Ward announced that Micron would dismiss half its workers, more than 600 people. Those left, Appleton included, would survive, and eventually thrive. I was among the living after that Valentine's Day massacre, but life for those left at Micron was far from rosy.
Micron itself was in survivor mode. R&D, what I'd signed up for and my passion, was replaced by "all hands on deck" firefighting. Engineers worked as operators, and process development virtually ceased. Shipping products, not developing new ones, took priority. By the summer of 1985, I'd had enough. As a young engineer, I had options, and Bell Labs looked pretty good, even if it meant a cross-country move.
I left Micron, but Steve Appleton didn't. He rose, like Micron itself, through the ashes of those dark days. And in the ultimate irony, Micron outlasted far larger competitors, AT&T and IBM among them, to become the last domestic memory manufacturer standing.
Appleton had clearly been a quick study, rising through the ranks at a company that valued total commitment more than industry experience. By 1994, a mere nine years after those dark days when Micron was on the verge of collapse, and a decade out of college, Steve Appleton was running the show. From the outside, it was never clear how the machinations surrounding Micron's executive shuffle worked--how the baton was passed, or snatched, from Ward to his brother Joe, who contrary to revisionist history was not a founder, but brought in later by his brother for legal advice. Ultimately, Appleton, a young man who had learned the memory business from the ground up, grabbed the reins. But the transition was clearly the result of a power struggle, and it wasn't over.
In 1996, Joe Parkinson, who had retained his seat on the board and a respected place in Micron's leadership pantheon, faced off with Appleton, seeking a return to power. The board initially sided with the heir to the Micron family dynasty, shunting Appleton to a secondary executive slot. He called their bluff and quit. A few days later, the board realized its folly and asked him to come back. Once again, Appleton survived. His hold on Micron's helm was now unquestioned.
Throughout the next decade, Micron defied the odds as the memory business grew more concentrated, weaker firms failed or merged, and its center mass slowly drifted east, from Japan to Korea, Taiwan, and eventually China. Showing the same competitiveness and focus his teammates saw when he was a young tennis star, Appleton deftly pulled off acquisitions from much larger companies, like TI, that cried uncle in the face of the Asian tigers. These buys fortified Micron in a business where size most definitely matters.
From a little company with a few fabs in Boise, Appleton turned Micron into a multinational powerhouse and one of the top five memory producers in the world. Under a guy who'd never designed a chip, and never previously managed anything more than his bank account, but who learned the business from the ground up, Micron had achieved success its founders could have only dreamed about.
I hadn't seen Steve Appleton in over 25 years, but I'm glad that our paths crossed early in our respective careers. Appleton personified Micron's can-do spirit. He, and it, defied the odds. He became, at age 34, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one engaged in the most sophisticated manufacturing known to man. He guided Micron to succeed where no other American company could, holding its own against much larger rivals in a business that is among the most demanding, capital-intensive, and unpredictable in a tech world known for volatility. They both not only survived, but thrived. Although Steve Appleton's life has tragically ended, his legacy, in the company he built, the values he instilled, and the philanthropy he demonstrated to his adopted home town, will live on.
Kurt Marko is an IT pro with broad experience, from chip design to IT systems.