Steve Appleton 1960-2012: 'Boise Lost a Good Friend'

Idaho StatesmanFebruary 4, 2012 

This story was originally published in the Idaho Statesman Feb. 4, 2012

The pictures hanging in Steve Appleton's office and hangar at the Boise Airport hinted at the extraordinary life that he lived.

There are photographs of Appleton flying various planes, a lifetime love. And pictures of the Micron CEO with President Barack Obama and President George H.W. Bush. And still more of him from his tennis-playing days at Boise State, where he captained the Broncos and earned all-conference honors.

But the one that stood out to Rodger De George, a college teammate and friend of Appleton's, was the oldest one: Appleton, in high school, wearing drum major headgear and leading the band onto the field.

"Here he was the leader of the band. I thought it was pretty funny, " De George said. "He's been leading people for a long time."

Appleton, 51, died Friday morning when the small high-performance plane he was piloting crashed shortly after takeoff at the Boise Airport. Appleton was the lone passenger in the Lancair IV P-T, an amateur-built aircraft.

"Boise lost a good friend, " Mayor Dave Bieter said. "Steve Appleton taught us that the very best in the world can go on in Boise because he proved it. He took this company (Micron) and put it among the best."

He is survived by his wife, Dalynn, a Capital High graduate, and four children - 10-year-old Anabella, her younger brother Jake and two older daughters from a previous relationship.

"The guy is like the American hero. He's a self-made man, very competitive, incredible integrity. He loved sports, loved to compete. He was all about doing the best you could, being the very best you could, " Boise State men's tennis coach Greg Patton said.

Early days

Appleton grew up in West Covina, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb, the second of three children of middle-class parents. His mother was a teacher, his father was a businessman. "The family did a lot of things together, " said Erika Bennett, a childhood friend.

Appleton steered clear of trouble. "It was sticks in elementary school, knives in junior high and guns in high school, " Appleton told Business Week in 1996. Instead, Appleton embraced extracurricular activities such as band and tennis.

Appleton and his brother Chris were strong students and good tennis players. The pair later raced cars in Baja for the Bad Apple Racing Team.

"They were competitive with each other, but in a fun way, " Bennett said. "They liked to push the envelope."

Appleton left for Boise State in 1978 - spurning an offer from Patton, then the tennis coach at UC Irvine. He earned tennis and academic scholarships. Appleton considered leaving the school and city after a coaching change, but new coach Bus Connor said he helped persuade him to stay.

A fierce competitor and hard worker, Appleton was named team captain in 1982 and won the Big Sky Conference doubles championship.

"He would not lose. He could step his game up. He could step his game up at any point in time. He could elevate based off the circumstances and pull a win out, " De George said. "He rarely ever lost."

Appleton continued his association with the Broncos' tennis program long after his playing days. He contributed more than $3 million to the Appleton Tennis Center, the Broncos' on-campus facility. In 2005, he won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Achievement Award, given to past college tennis players who excel in their professional careers.

Micron success

He was not always a likely candidate for such an award.

Appleton planned to attend law school after graduation, Connor said, but ended up working the graveyard shift on the chip fabrication line at Micron, then a small player in the computer chip-making business.

He - and Micron - didn't stay there long.

In 1994, at 34, Appleton was named chairman, CEO and president of the company, making him the third-youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. His rise was fueled by intense workdays - often 16 hours a day with time left only for gym workouts.

Save for a brief eight-day ouster in 1996, Appleton held the position until his death, weathering a series of ups-and-downs in the microchip business and world economy. He presided over the company's expansion and its diversification of chip products.

Micron shares were trading at $7.95 per share when trading was halted Friday on the news of Appleton's death.

Appleton's total compensation in 2011 was $11.61 million, according to Forbes. Appleton did not take salary from 2004 to 2007, when the company was struggling.

"I'm proud of Micron. I think despite the fact that we have gone through difficult times, it's an incredible story, " Appleton told the Idaho Press-Tribune in 2008. "Micron is a legend. People gave us up for dead in the '80s, and we have continued to grow and acquire and thrive and continue to be a player when, by any other measurement, most people thought we would have been buried a couple of decades ago.

"We've overcome the odds time and time again. ... I promise you, we will re-emerge and we will lead our industry again and we will be strong."

In the 1980s, Appleton was a lead negotiator in the effort to help American chip companies gain access to Japanese markets. In 2011, he was awarded the Semiconductor Industry Association's Robert N. Noyce Award, a prestigious honor named for the inventor of the integrated circuit.

"He was a leader, and he got people enthusiastic and supportive of his leadership, " said Sean Mahoney, Micron's media manager from 2001 to 2005. "He was somebody you wanted to follow. He was somebody you believed in."

Appleton was known for his open-door policy and for being on a first-name basis with most employees on the company's sprawling campus.

Boise State President Bob Kustra sought out Appleton for advice when confronted with tough decisions.

"I think what really sums up what Steve Appleton stood for is focus and discipline, " Kustra said. "He was incredibly focused, that's what made him the innovator he was."

Appleton opened the Treasure Valley's first two Gold's Gym franchises more than a decade ago. A third followed in 2004.

Last year, Appleton decided not to renew with Gold's, and the fitness clubs became Axiom in September. More than 300 people are employed at the three clubs.

"He was ultimately competitive. He was competitive in anything and everything he did, " said JP Green, the president of Axiom who has known Appleton for more than seven years. "Very driven, very focused."

Flying spirit

Those same characteristics applied to Appleton's personal adventures.

And they were numerous.

On a questionnaire Appleton filled out for the tennis program at Boise State, he listed his interests as sailing, surfing and mountain climbing. Those pursuits only grew more adventurous.

He got his pilot's license in the mid-1980s and owned a stable of aircraft. Appleton did aerobatics in air shows.

"I always say, 'Wow, that was a great airplane to fly. I really enjoyed that, ' " he said in 1999. "I really like the constant challenge of improving your skills. It really is a challenge. It's one of those areas you can improve the rest of your life."

Appleton was in a near-fatal accident in 2004, when the stunt plane he was flying crashed in the desert south of Boise.

It wasn't his only near-miss. When the operating system that Appleton installed in his British Hunter Hawker tank-hunting jet failed, he was seconds away from ejecting from the plane, De George said.

"I appreciate that Steve was able to live his dreams and live a full life. Even though he got in an accident once years ago, he did not let it hold him back, " said Ryan DeLuca, CEO of BodyBuilding.com and an avid pilot.

Appleton occasionally flew a private jet on business trips. Mahoney recalled a trip to Minneapolis in the early 2003.

Appleton was about to land at the airport when another plane in front of them had a mishap and was partially blocking the landing strip.

"We were instructed by the tower to abort the landing, " Mahoney recalled Friday from California.

"You could almost see the smile on his face from behind his head when he said, 'Hold on!' and accelerated the plane (up) and out of the way.

"That's what he was about. He loved flying.

"The way he ran the company, it was the same thing. He held onto the reins of the company and steered it the way he wanted it to go."

Last summer, as has been tradition, Appleton took some of his friends on vacation. They went to McCall, where Appleton put his former teammates and their wives up at the Shore Lodge. He flew the party around to various lakes.

"We played tennis. What a night. We sat around and had a blast, " said friend Mike Megale. "It wasn't just about Steve. It was about all of us and our families. He was so gracious with everything. He didn't make anybody feel weird about it."

In fact, he made them feel like part of a big group.

On a previous trip to Hawaii, "Appleton, " as his friends called him, got the group bicycles and sweatsuits for a trip to the top of a volcano in Haleakala National Park. The group then shouted down into the volcano.

"I could go on for days and hours about his generosity and his love for his friends, " Megale said. "From a friend standpoint, he was one of the best, sweetest people you've ever met. Everybody loved Steve."

Thrill seeker

Appleton was known for seeking new experiences and thrills. He surfed big waves in Hawaii. He competed in motocross. He won the Wide Open Baja Challenge Class in the 2006 Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, completing the 1,047-mile course in less than 26 hours.

In the early 2000s, Appleton was asked to do a flyover for a race track in Twin Falls. He said he'd only do it if he could compete in the race. Despite having no racing experience, he finished eighth in the 12-car field, De George said.

"I think he thought, like a lot of people, he's immortal and invincible, " De George said.

He competed in triathlons. He went skydiving.

"It was his passion. He loved to be out there - racing and winning. He was really about competition and winning, " Kustra said.

Former tennis partner Chris Langdon told Business Week in 1996 that Appleton wasn't bad at anything for very long.

"You never see him when he isn't good at something. He just goes away for a while and comes back good, " he said.

Appleton had a fitness facility at his home and was religious about working out - more than 300 days a year, said Green, the Axiom executive.

"Fitness was a passion, " said Green. "He was a high-level athlete."

Appleton earned a black belt in taekwondo in two years, a pursuit that typically takes more than double that time. He took private lessons at a local Boise gym.

Jason Appelman also attended the gym and a tournament with Appleton in Portland.

"He fought like a guy who runs a company - very analytical, no wasted efforts. He waited for a guy to make a mistake and went in for the kill, " Appelman said. "And he walked away with a gold medal."

That's how Appleton attacked life - competing to be the best, and more often than not, succeeding in every pursuit.

"I don't have any regrets, " Appleton told the Idaho Press-Tribune in 2008.

"I have lived a great, great life, and I have experienced so much more than one person should be allowed."

Brian Murphy: 377-6444

The Statesman's Katy Moeller and Dara Barney contributed.

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