Micron CEO Steve Appleton who died at the weekend was unique. No other semiconductor CEO started his career as working as a production machine operator.
That experience made Micron the lowest cost producer in the DRAM industry. Micron’s costs were consistently lower than the Koreans’ costs and it was this which gave Micron its staying power in a cut-throat industry.
Manufacturing ICs very much depends on the operators. Their skill determines yield and yield determines cost and cost determines profit.
Appleton’s great friend, with whom he shared a love of fast cars, Ulrich Schumacher of Siemens Semiconductor (later Infineon) once took a group of his people over to Idaho
“I think Micron felt sorry for us,” recalls Schumacher, “for two days they showed us everything. They showed us through the production lines. It was lucky they didn’t throw us out. I really think it was because they felt so sorry for these poor little guys that they said: ‘Let’s show them the real world and then they’ll give up’.”
The Siemens team found that Micron had a 45mm 1Mbit DRAM compared to the Siemens 72mm die, meaning it cost Micron 30% less to make their chip. It was a wake-up call.
Not many CEOs would have done what Appleton did. It was a generous gesture and a supremely self-confident one.
He was a very fine man – up-front, direct, straight and true.