Micron Regroups After Life Without Steve Appleton
BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- Steve Appleton, the late chairman and CEO of Micron Technology Inc., used to say his vision for Micron was to survive the brutal down cycles of the memory-chip industry — in effect to be the last company standing, with a diversified array of products.
A year after his death in a plane crash at the Boise Airport, analysts say Micron is pursuing that vision with patience and determination in its business strategy.
"I think they are doing Steve proud," said Betsy Van Hees, senior vice president of equity research for Wedbush Securities in San Francisco. "I think he'd be very pleased with where the company is going and how they are executing."
Among the bright spots:
- The pending purchase of bankrupt Japanese chip maker Elpida Memory Inc. promises to boost Micron's share of the worldwide memory-chip market and supply tools Micron wants to compete more vigorously in mobile memory.
- Micron's foray into designing chips for industry, automobiles and medicine has produced substantial profits.
- Micron's work in developing the hybrid cube, which combines logic and memory, holds promise for future generations in memory.
But the road Micron traveled over the past year has been filled with bumps and ruts:
- The company is still losing money. It has logged $1.4 billion in red ink over the past six quarters, losing money in most of its businesses.
- It has been late to the smartphone boom and has yet to find profitability in the margin-rich mobile memory market.
In the years before Appleton's death, Micron branched out. It sought business opportunities in the Treasure Valley after laying off 3,500 people in 2008-2009 as it ended commercial wafer fabrication in Boise. The company ventured into manufacturing solar panels and light-emitting diodes.
Solar and LEDs proved too tough for profitability. Since Appleton died, Micron has pulled back. The retrenchment cost nearly 300 local jobs. The company has about 25,000 employees worldwide, including an estimated 5,600 in Boise, up from about 5,000 in 2009.
"At the highest level we have reinforced to be all-in on memory," said Mark Adams, Micron's president. "We have reached a level of scale we have not had in a long time. We are no longer in the solar business ... and we've downsized our LED efforts to the point where they are not material to our research and development."
Still, Micron wants to be more than a company that spits out billions of memory chips. It is developing products and relationships with customers to meet their specific needs. Micron wants longer, more stable relationships with chip customers. "We think there is better financial performance for people who execute ... solutions around memory," Adams said.
But the world of memory has strong competitors. Korea's Samsung is the world leader in dynamic random-access memory, formerly Micron's product kingpin. Micron is expected to move into second place after its acquisition of Elpida, with Korea's Hynix third.
In NAND flash memory, which is now Micron's No. 1 product, Micron ranks fourth behind Samsung, Japan's Toshiba and Hynix, according to IHS iSuppli, which analyzes the memory chip market.
Here's a look at three promising lines of business:
1. MOBILE PHONES
The company's wireless services group was supposed to be a bridge to more predictable income. The group focuses on cellphones, tablets and notebooks.
In 2010, Micron bought Numonyx, a Swiss company that made a type of memory chip called NOR, a component of cellphones. Company officials predicted that Numonyx would give Micron a jump on the market.
That's not what happened.
Numonyx was "maniacally focused" on building products for feature phones that do little more than call and text, said Mike Rayfield, who joined Micron four months ago as vice president for wireless solutions. Numonyx was developing products for a shrinking market.
"The core technology within Micron existed to build the right products for mobile, and we just didn't build the right products," Rayfield said. "And so (we) missed out on the first part of that boom."
Micron's DRAM barely made a dent in the wireless market, said Mike Howard, a former Micron employee in Boise who is now an analyst for IHS iSuppli. In the third quarter of 2012, Micron sold an estimated $70 million worth of DRAM into a wireless DRAM market pegged at $2.1 billion.
Rayfield, a former vice president at NVIDIA Inc., a California maker of graphics processors used in cellphones and computers, said Adams and CEO Marc Durcan told him: "Fix it."
The Elpida purchase will help. Elpida sold an estimated $315 million in DRAM into the wireless market in the third quarter, four times as much as Micron sold. Elpida has relationships with the top smartphone companies, such as Apple and Samsung.
"They have done a better job in mobile technology than Micron has," Rayfield said. "They have better customer relationships with some of the smartphone customers."
Micron's customers "want to make sure we do a good job of integrating Elpida, and I think we are starting to convince them that is the case," he said.
Howard said wireless profits "will spike considerably if they don't train-wreck" the integration of the two companies.
Another Micron attempt to snare customers into longer business relationships is faring better.
The company's embedded-services group supplies memory for automobile navigation and infotainment systems, medical products such as CAT scanners, industrial applications, and smart meters that monitor electrical consumption in your home.
Google is developing a driverless car. Automakers are sketching out safety products to detect lane drift or alert drivers when their eyelids droop.
"That is essentially taking a still or video capture and applying massive supercomputing algorithms to do all those functions, and of course all of that requires lots of leading-edge memory," said Tom Eby, vice president of embedded solutions.
By some estimates, Micron has about one-third of the automotive memory market. The embedded-services group takes Micron's basic chips and tailors them to meet customers' specific needs. The group "is going after a market that inherently supports higher margins," Eby said.
The company reported a 6 percent increase in revenue and an 89 percent increase in operating income in the embedded market between Micron's first quarters of 2012 and 2013.
3. SOLID-STATE DRIVES
These drives are smaller, use less power and are more reliable than typical computer hard drives, which have moving parts. Solid-state drives go into computer servers and into notebooks.
They have helped Micron as PC sales lag. The company ships about one million drives per quarter. It didn't ship that many in all of 2010, Adams said.
"Had we just been in the PC business, our financials would be dramatically worse," he said.
IS PROSPERITY NEAR?
For years, Micron's standard comment when it lost money was that the memory business is cyclical and volatile. Unlike most industries, memory-chip making is a business of extremes: When you churn out more chips than device and equipment makers want, prices fall sharply and losses mount. When demand picks up, profits soar.
At Micron's annual shareholders meeting last month, someone asked Durcan what the company is doing to boost its stock's value.
He said he hopes the company's push into solutions marketing will return value to shareholders. "We've had our ups and downs," Durcan said. "We continue to be believe that over time we will be rewarded."
Howard said the company appears interested in the long-term gains, not short-term profits that won't last. Van Hees said Micron could turn a profit this summer because of the Elpida acquisition and progress in solid-state drives.
Those are developments Appleton would have welcomed.
"It's very sad Steve isn't here," Van Hees said.