Steve Appleton, who took charge of Micron Technology Inc at 34 and went on to become the memorychip industry’s longest-serving chief executive officer, died after crashing an experimental plane in Boise, Idaho. He was 51.
Appleton was flying a private aircraft with a fixed wing and single engine when it crashed between two runways, said Patty Miller, a spokeswoman for the Boise airport. Appleton was the only fatality. Chief operating officer Mark Durcan will assume the CEO’s responsibilities until a successor is chosen.
“Steve’s passion and energy left an indelible mark on Micron, the Idaho community and the technology industry at large,” Boise-based Micron said in a statement on Friday.
A skydiving triathlete who flew stunt planes and raced motorcycles, Appleton navigated the sole US maker of computer memory through a period of volatile price swings that left Micron unprofitable eight of the past 14 years. Before his death, Appleton was working to decrease Micron’s reliance on sales of the chips, which help computers process information.
Last year, Appleton was awarded the Semiconductor Industry Association’s Robert N. Noyce Award, a prestigious honor named for the inventor of the integrated circuit. In the 1980s, Appleton worked with the US government as a main negotiator to help US chip companies gain access to Japanese markets.
“There is such a long list of things he did for the industry,” Ray Stata, chairman of Analog Devices Inc, said in an interview.
He introduced Appleton at the award ceremony last year.
“He was one of those kinds of people when he decided to speak, he had wisdom and insights and thoughts that were taken seriously,” Stata said.
Micron shares fell 3.1 percent to US$7.70 in late trading on Friday, after having been halted at US$7.95 prior to the announcement. The company has a market value of US$7.85 billion.
Appleton’s death follows recent management changes at the company. Micron said last month that Durcan would retire as operating chief and president at the end of August, and that two board members, Teruaki Aoki and James Bagley, were also departing.
Even so, Micron has a “very deep bench” of executives who can step in for Appleton, especially Mark Adams, who was recently named president, Daniel Berenbaum, an analyst at MKM Partners LLC, said in a research note. Adams was already being groomed to take the helm, Berenbaum said.
Under Appleton, Micron suffered from the price fluctuations that plagued the broader memory-chip industry. Micron, the last remaining US maker of dynamic random access memory, or DRAM, reported a second consecutive quarterly loss in December as weak demand for personal computers hammered chip prices.
The Lancair aircraft that Appleton was piloting when he died has had a “misproportionate” number of fatal accidents, according to a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notice to Lancair operators on Sept. 25, 2009.
“The Lancair fatal accident rate is substantially higher than both personal-use general aviation as well as the overall fatal accident rate for all amateur-built experimental aircraft,” the FAA said.
A Los Angeles native, Appleton flew stunt planes as a hobby and experienced an earlier crash, in 2004. He later showed off photographs of the destroyed aircraft while regaling reporters with his account of crawling from the wreckage only to return to work the following day. The US National Transportation Safety Board said that accident was caused by the pilot’s failure to stay clear of the ground while performing acrobatic maneuvers.