Powered by Principle – Kenneth Frazier’s Path to Success

Kenneth Frazier

Many people live in what are considered ‘tough’ neighborhoods – communities which are typically afflicted with poverty, unemployment, crime, and drugs. What can often be overlooked is that most of these areas also include highly-motivated, hard-working and law-abiding citizens. North Philly is a ‘tough’ neighborhood. It is also where Otis Frazier and his wife, Clara raised their three children. 

Otis, a janitor, had been a share-cropper in South Carolina before moving to Philadelphia. He and his wife lived in a tough neighborhood more by circumstance than choice. Together, they created a loving home – almost a sanctuary – in the midst of the rough streets. Importantly, Otis instilled in his three children the belief that they could become anything they chose – through hard work and a good education. These thoughts were not lost on his kids, in particular, Kenneth – born December 17, 1954. 

Sadly, Clara died when Kenneth was just 12 years-old. Otis, now a single-father, continued to encourage his children. Ken would graduate high school with thoughts of attending West Point, the United States Military Academy. Instead, he accepted a scholarship and enrolled at Penn State University. Next for Ken was a scholarship to the Harvard School of Law, where he graduated with his J.D. in 1978.

Ken’s pursuit of law was no surprise given his high regard for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Ken’s legal career would begin at the Philadelphia firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath. There, he was able to demonstrate both his passion – and skill – in the courtroom. His defense cases were built on a combination of principle, knowledge and presence. He won – often. During his fifteen-year career at the firm, he successfully handled several cases for Merck, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, and several of its subsidiaries. 

While Ken was a passionate and excellent corporate attorney – his primary interest was in justice. It is that belief which led him, in 1991, to agree to representing James ‘Bo’ Cochran, a black man on Georgia’s death row, having been convicted of murdering a grocery store manager. Working pro bono, Ken’s leadership resulted in the original verdict being overturned. Upon retrial, Cochran was found to be not guilty and freed from prison after more than twenty years.

In 1992, Merck hired Ken to be General Counsel for one of their subsidiaries. By 1999, he was named General Counsel for Merck corporation. In that role, he and Merck faced one of their largest legal challenges – the avalanche of lawsuits over Vioxx – a pain killer linked to heart attacks. Once again, Ken faced a challenge on principle. Fueled by his belief that Merck had ‘acted responsibly and diligently’ relative to Vioxx – he chose to fight the suits in court rather than acquiesce to what he determined to be exaggerated and inflated claims. It was seen by many as a high-risk strategy, as Merck faced as much as $50 billion in claims. In the end, Merck’s loss was estimated at $5 billion.

He held various positions including director of global sales and marketing and eventually, president, before being named CEO in 2011. Since then, he has instilled a culture of transparency, a love of science and development and a genuine passion in Merck’s core mission of translating science into medically important products. These accomplishments are the result of many factors – but without question the largest reason is that Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck – is a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands are fueled by education and stand on principle

Kenneth Frazier is unique in many ways. He grew up in ‘tough’ North Philly and has gone on to become the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world. He is a lawyer in charge of a company driven by science and medicine. He is one of the few African-Americans who are CEO’s of a corporation – the first and only black CEO of a pharma corporation. 

What might make him most unique, is his commitment to principle. He did so in defending Bo Cochran and again in countless cases for Merck. As the head of the special task force on the Penn State board of trustees, he hired Judge Louis Freeh to lead the investigation into the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. Every one of these actions has faced criticism – some of it rather harsh. Every one of these choices are ones that Kenneth Frazier took with full conviction and belief that they were the correct and principled moves.

Most recently, Kenneth Frazier took a stand by resigning from the President’s manufacturing council. His resignation was immediately followed by other CEO’s. Still other CEO’s voiced support yet chose to remain involved. The point is this – Frazier acted on principle knowing full well the criticism that would follow. It’s that type of conviction which defines a fearless brand.

Being a fearless brand does not imply a lack of fear – we all experience fear. Rather, being a fearless brand is an indication of the conviction that comes from self-awareness, commitment to one’s own principles, and the courage to remain true to those beliefs. 

Kenneth Frazier is a fearless brand, and agree with his actions or not, there are several great lessons to learn from him.

You can become whatever you choose – Otis Frazier had the equivalence of a third-grade education – yet he read two papers every day, studied his children’s school books, and instilled in them a vision for success – you can become whatever you choose. That one belief, instilled by his father throughout his entire childhood, is at the core of being a fearless brand. That concept has fueled Kenneth Frazier’s success in business – in life.

Integrity matters – Frazier has made a career out of acting on principle. There’s a difference between acting on conviction and being stubborn. For Frazier, his actions are based on core beliefs – beliefs which have been created over a lifetime of influence, education and experience. Former Merck CEO, Roy Vagelos puts it this way “Ken is driven by a strong sense of morality in everything he does…” Choosing to act based on one’s beliefs will often result in conflict and disagreement. Opposition and negative reactions are easier to accept and address when actions are based on integrity.

Embrace your passion – Kenneth Frazier was drawn to the legal profession by his admiration for Judge Thurgood. He was drawn to the courtroom because it’s where he could best fight for his beliefs. He is unapologetic about his love of Merck because he believes so firmly in their core mission – translating science into effective medical treatments. Passion is life’s greatest fuel.

Kenneth Frazier is driven, educated, successful, and continually acts based on principle. He is certainly controversial as well. What’s important to note here, is that integrity and principle – based on knowledge and morals – deserves respect, even though we might disagree with a person’s views. As we build our own fearless brand, it’s wise for us to remember to be driven, to have integrity and embrace our passion. 


Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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