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This Black History Month, we honor the GAME CHANGERS: Everyday heroes whose actions make life better for the people around them. SEE ALL OUR GAME CHANGERS HERE.


Kenneth Frazier

Place of Residence: New Jersey

Why he is a Game Changer: As the chief legal counsel for pharmaceutical giant Merck, Kenneth Frazier decided to try a series of cases individually for the painkiller Vioxx instead of as a large group. Vioxx was a drug Merck made that was found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and the company was poised to lose enormous amounts of money in claims and legal issues.

Instead, Frazier’s unconventional and counter-intuitive move saved the drug company by limiting settlement costs, catapulting Frazier to his current position as the company’s CEO and the first African American to head a major pharmaceutical company.

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Now as CEO, Frazier has yet to stop going against the grain. At a time when other giant pharmaceutical companies are bowing to the immense pressures of Wall Street and slashing billions from research and development to keep the bottom line looking healthy and issue dividend checks, Frazier has kept his research and development  division intact.

Instead of snagging drugs from other small companies, allowing them to bear the initial risks, Frazier has tried to keep Merck in the drug development game as original creators. While other companies slashed billions from their research and development budgets, Merck leads the industry with a gaudy $8 billion research and development budget.

Fierce Biotech writes:

With sales eroding, cost cuts help pump up earnings and finance dividends. It can help prop up stock prices (in theory, anyway), or at least buy time for a company to rebuild its product portfolio, one way or another.

Not Frazier. Soon after he took the reins, Frazier pulled the company’s earnings projections for 2013, saying he wanted Merck to focus on delivering long-term gains, not achieving short-term numbers. No “indiscriminate” cost-cutting for Merck. No worries about becoming pharma’s biggest research spender, with an $8 billion budget. “It isn’t we couldn’t cut costs enough to make long-term guidance,” he said at the time. “We couldn’t do that fast enough without sacrificing opportunities.”

The decision by Frazier represents an acknowledgement that short-term gains aren’t necessarily beneficial for long-term growth.

Despite the ethical concerns that have been voiced about Big Pharma in this country, research and development could lead to important disease treatments that could help millions of people.

And even though his strategy has had some successes and failures, with Frazier having to make some concessions, he continues to stick by his decisions.

“When one runs a company like Merck that has long lead times in terms of development,” he recently said, “you’re not necessarily running the company for the immediate reaction of the stock market.”

It’s a worldview that many African Americans understand but are unfortunately getting away from. How many African Americans sacrificed themselves doing dirty, dangerous jobs at the bottom of the totem pole so that the next generation would have the opportunity to run a pharmaceutical company?

Frazier says his worldview was driven in to him by his father:

It’s actually misleading to say I grew up in North Philadelphia. I grew up in my parents’ house, which by accident of geography was in North Philadelphia, Frazier told the Harvard Law Bulletin.

My father had a very strong view of what it took to be successful, and he in effect brainwashed all his children to think that we could do anything. He had very high personal standards. Although he was a janitor by accident of birth, I believe he could have been a CEO of any company.

Maybe it was that same worldview that helped Frazier free James Willie “Bo” Cochran, an Alabama man convicted of murdering a White store manager after 21 years on death row.

Five years after first examining Cochran’s case, Frazier said he found that “despite evidence suggesting an accidental police shooting and cover-up,” Cochran was “denied virtually all of the fundamental rights we associate with a criminal trial, including effective assistance of counsel and a fairly selected jury of his peers. He was ‘railroaded’ in the classic sense,” Frazier wrote in the Toledo Law Review about the case.

“To create justice in the world and to do the things that really matter, you have to be a lawyer who not only has ideas in your mind but also conviction in your heart,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative who worked with Frazier on the case told the Harvard Law Bulletin. “I definitely think Ken fits that description.”

And just because he’s the head of one of the biggest drug companies in the world doesn’t mean Frazier has stopped challenging what he sees as injustice. Earlier this year, the Merck Foundation stopped charitable giving to the Boy Scouts because of the organization’s policy of barring gays from its ranks and leadership team.

Merck Foundation has suspended all funding to the Boys Scouts of America. The Merck Foundation will consider funding the BSA again when the organization’s inclusion criteria has been expanded, the company wrote in a statement.

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CEO Blazes Trail For Pharmaceutical Companies  was originally published on