Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier to Retire, Leaving Just Three Black Fortune 500 CEOs

Longtime Merck CEO Ken Frazier who has worked at the pharmaceutical company for almost 30 years is retiring, the company announced Thursday, Feb. 4. He will be succeeded by CFO Robert Davis on April 1.

“It has been a privilege to serve as Merck’s CEO for the past decade and to work with the most dedicated and talented employees and management team in the industry,” Frazier said in a statement following the announcement. “Rob has been instrumental in helping Merck take the right actions to adapt to the changing healthcare environment while remaining committed to investing in the scientific innovation that we expect will drive our future growth,” Frazier said. “I look forward to collaborating with Rob and our board of directors to help Merck achieve even higher levels of success.”

According to CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn, “Frazier’s final years at Merck were marked by his outspoken opposition to former President Donald Trump. He led a revolt among CEOs as the first to resign from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council shortly after the former president’s supportive comments of white nationalist groups at the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.”

After resigning from the council, Frazier said in a statement, “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Frazier later elaborated on his decision with the Harvard Business Review, saying: “I don’t believe it’s appropriate for me or any other CEO to wade into every political dispute. That’s not what we’re here for. But I didn’t see this as a political issue. It’s an issue that goes to our fundamental values as a country. We aspire to be a rational, tolerant, hopefully enlightened collection of free people. We don’t all look the same. We don’t come from the same countries. What we share are the ideals that make the United States unique.”

In his decade-long tenure as the head of the pharmaceutical giant, Frazier frequently “called for business leaders to be a ‘unifying force’ that can help solve many of the racial inequalities in America by creating new opportunities and jobs,” Higgins-Dunn reported.  

In remembering his career as one of the most outspoken CEOs in the country, Jordan Valinsky from CNN Business recalled that Frazier made headlines for the way he spoke out last summer during the nationwide protests for George Floyd, saying “it could’ve been him who was killed by police.”

“What the African American community sees in that videotape is that this African American man, who could be me or any other African American man, is being treated as less than human,” Frazier said.

A lawyer before he joined Merck in 1992, Frazier began his career by helping to free a black death row inmate who had been falsely accused of murder.

The end of Frazier’s time at Merck comes at a period of transition for the drug company. Fourth-quarter worldwide sales for the company totaled $12.5 billion, an increase of 5% and worldwide sales for the year topped $48 billion, an increase of 2% over 2019. Still, the company entered the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 well after competitors like Pfizer and Moderna and has announced that it is ending research and development of its own vaccine. Instead, the company plans to focus on new treatments for the coronavirus, with results of one experimental oral antiviral expected by the end of March 2021.

While Frazier’s retirement brings the total number of Black CEOs running a Fortune 500 company down to three, Walgreens Boots Alliance’s recent appointment of Rosaline “Roz” Brewer will bring the total back up to four once she takes over as CEO on March 15.


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