Durcan on Appleton’s death: ‘Nothing prepares you. ... You react on gut and instinct'

Mark Durcan, who replaced Steve Appleton as CEO of Micron, speaks about his predecessor at a memorial service at Boise State on Feb. 23, 2012. Appleton died in a plane crash on Feb. 3.
Mark Durcan, who replaced Steve Appleton as CEO of Micron, speaks about his predecessor at a memorial service at Boise State on Feb. 23, 2012. Appleton died in a plane crash on Feb. 3. Idaho Statesman file

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Idaho Statesman on Aug. 29, 2012.

When Micron Technology Inc. Chairman and CEO Steve Appleton’s private plane crashed Feb. 3 at the Boise Airport, his No. 2 man was out of town.

Mark Durcan, then Micron’s president, was meeting with lawyers on company business in Palo Alto, Calif. In an Idaho Statesman interview, he spoke publicly for the first time about events surrounding Appleton’s death.

“I got a call on my cellphone, which I ignored,” he said.

He got another call moments later from a company officer, which he took.

“They didn’t actually know what had happened yet,” Durcan said. “They knew it was likely a pretty bad accident, (and) Steve was probably involved, and it was probably fatal.”

He apologized to the lawyers, left the meeting and flew back to Boise.

“By the time I hit ground we knew that Steve had died, “ he said.

Appleton’s death thrust Durcan, who has been at Micron 28 years, into the role of interim CEO. The day after the crash, Micron’s board named him permanent CEO.

Just days earlier, Durcan had announced his plan to retire at the end of August. That plan evaporated as he took the reins of the only semiconductor chip maker in the United States.

“That seemed like the best thing to do, because there is continuity there, “ Durcan said before the Statesman interview, in a speech to the City Club of Boise. “I knew the board supported me and we could continue moving forward.”

He faced a workforce at Micron that was fearful and in shock over Appleton’s death.

“The employees knew and trusted Steve and knew he had made a lot of good decisions,” Durcan told the Statesman.

Durcan met with team leaders, sent out a company memo and talked to people in the hallways after Appleton’s death — always, he said, with the same message: “We were going to have continuity, and that we would be all right and that (we had) a lot of good things going for us. And I would be willing and happy to stay on if that’s what the board wanted to do.”

Durcan quickly established his presence on the job. In a meeting with analysts in Scottsdale, Ariz., a week after Appleton’s death, he delivered a message: He was in charge and planned to stay.

“I can’t do anything half-assed,” he said at the time. “I’m not as good as Steve at some sports, but I’m a hard-nosed competitor. There is nothing interim about my role as CEO of Micron.”

Durcan also discussed Micron’s future, including:

What the purchase of bankrupt Japanese chip maker Elpida will mean for jobs at Micron’s Boise headquarters:

Employment is likely to increase, but Durcan can’t say by how much.

“I am convinced Micron will be a healthier, stronger company, and that as such we will have more activity at our corporate and R and D headquarters” he said.

He cites one example where expansion is under way. The company builds equipment to test its own products; Elpida doesn’t test its products in-house. So Micron is planning expansion of its testing capacity for the products that will come from Elpida. That will happen in Boise and will mean more employees.

What the Elpida purchase means to Micron in the marketplace:

Elpida will boost the company’s manufacturing capacity by 50 percent, Durcan said. Micron will go from having a 10 percent share of the worldwide market for dynamic random-access memory to a 16 or 17 percent share.

The increased size will help Micron when it seeks to sell to a shrinking number of customers, each buying greater and greater quantities of memory. Bigness will assure customers that Micron has the capacity to meet their needs, he said.

Whether Boise will ever see another Micron production plant like the one that closed in 2008-2009, costing about 2,000 jobs:

It’s possible, but there are a couple of barriers. “The industry just does not need new wafer capacity right now, “ Durcan said.

If the time comes when Micron seeks more production capacity, “we would love to build a new manufacturing facility in Boise, “ but the nation’s 35 percent federal corporate tax rate is an impediment, he said.

Micron’s losses of nearly $1 billion over the past four quarters:

“I can’t tell you when it turns around, “ Durcan said. The personal computer industry is under a lot of pressure and is shrinking, he said.

Some of the current pressure might be a result of slack demand while consumers wait for Microsoft’s Windows 8 platform to become available.

Micron also is feeling the effects of a soft world economy. Sixty-eight percent of its products, for example, are sold in Asia.

“As long as the global economy is not growing, it’s going to be tough sledding, “ Durcan said.