Grading Micron's Replacement Leaders

When Micron Technology (NAS: MU) CEO Steve Appleton crashed his single-engine plane eight months ago, he had served as CEO and chairman since 1994. He grew Micron from a relative minnow in a crowded industry with $1.6 billion in 1994 revenue and transformed it into an industry leader. When Appleton passed away, Micron had more than quintupled its sales in eight years despite several brutal price wars.

Those are some big shoes to fill, but Micron's board took all of two days to appoint then-COO Mark Durcan as new CEO. The chairman's seat was filled by longtime director Robert Switz, former CEO of ADC Telecommunications. If that company doesn't sound familiar, you might recognize parent company TE Connectivity (NYS: TEL) , which is an offshoot of the old Tyco conglomerate. Several analyst firms voiced their support for Appleton's replacements by raising target prices on Micron or simply underscoring their existing buy ratings.

Have pudding, let's dig for proof
But it's been anything but smooth sailing for Micron under Durcan and Switz. Share prices have plunged 25% since Appleton's demise while the Nasdaq (INDEX: ^IXIC) gained nearly 7%. Can we shareholders pin that drop on new leadership?

Not exactly. Most of that plunge hinges on a disappointing second-quarter report, and that period actually closed before the C-suite changes had to be made.

Yep, the computer memory market entered yet another price war at the end of Appleton's reign. At the time, I predicted that Micron would use its rock-solid balance sheet to buy out a failing competitor or two during this crisis, and Micron followed through by winning a bidding war over bankrupt Japanese DRAM competitor Elpida.

That deal is strategically important for two reasons:

  • Elpida is a major supplier of mobile memory chips, and counts Apple (NAS: AAPL) among its largest customers. Micron would love to make some headway in that exploding sector.

  • Tucking Elpida under its wing gives Micron much more power over the supply side of DRAM memory chips. Major rivals Samsung and Toshiba are diversified enough to live with a miserable pricing situation here, but Micron can't -- and the deal gives Durcan and company the ability to control its own destiny.

The bidding for Elpida started just weeks after Appleton's departure, and the buyout is currently held up in Japanese courts. The deal talks reportedly started in January. I think it's a very smart move, and that my shares will benefit greatly if and when it's consummated. But nothing is sure but death and taxes, so there's extra risk hanging over Micron until then.

Is that really good enough?
In the meantime, Micron is roughly keeping pace in an already troubled industry. Global semiconductor sales are down 4.6% so far in 20127. Even mighty Intel (NAS: INTC) pre-announced weak third-quarter sales, down 7.2% year over year. Amid all this, Micron has averaged a 6% sales decline thanks to those soft unit prices. In the just-reported fiscal fourth quarter, Micron's revenue fell 8.3% as compared to 2011 levels.

So far, I'm giving Durcan and Switz a solid B grade. They haven't done anything remarkably hare-brained such as pulling out of the Elpida bid, nor have they pulled any brand-new magic rabbits out of their hats. Micron remains a strong competitor with a solid balance sheet and positive cash flows, and the current price war will not kill the company. But I'll feel a whole lot better once the Elpida deal closes. Closing the deal would be good for a B+, right there.

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