Ex-Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, who stood up to Trump, says CEOs have a responsibility to uphold American values

William of England
By William of England 8 Min Read

“I took over Merck January 1, 2011. At that point, Wall Street was encouraging CEOs within the biopharmaceutical business not to spend money on R&D. There was a firm referred to as Valeant, you’ll keep in mind, whose inventory was going via the roof, and their philosophy was we don’t spend money on science, we spend money on administration.  

“My company had five-year EPS (earnings per share) guidance. Twenty-five days into the job, I decided that was the wrong thing for Merck, in the long term. So I called my board and I said: ‘You don’t really know me that well. But I just want to let you know, I intend to withdraw the last three and a half years of EPS guidance.’…The board went into executive session, and I called my wife and said ‘Honey, don’t buy the expensive Formica, okay? It’s not clear how long this is going to last.’ But they let me stay, and the stock plummeted…And every time a share of Merck stock got sold, somebody bought it, and the people who bought it were patient, long-term shareholders for a company that would invest in R&D.”

Before becoming a member of Merck, Frazier had been a company lawyer. A turning level in his profession got here when he took on the case of Bo Cochran, a Black man who was convicted of homicide by an overwhelmingly white jury and served 19 years on dying row in Alabama, till Frazier agreed to tackle his attraction.

“He was totally innocent. I didn’t want to take the case, but it was either I took it or he was going to be executed… After about five or six years of going back and finding evidence, we were able to prove him not only not guilty, but actually factually innocent. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life as an individual.”

In 2017, following President Donald Trump’s ambivalent response to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Frazier led the revolt towards the president’s enterprise advisory council that finally led to its dismantling.  

“I called my board, and I said I intended to step down from the president’s council. I was actually advised by my PR people to do it quietly. I said ‘No.’…I said I’m going to withdraw, and it’s going to be a noisy withdrawal, and I’m going to put out a statement, and I’m going to say why I’m withdrawing. And I said to my board: ‘I do recognize that I have a responsibility to the company. And so the question I’m asking you is, in my statement, do you want me to say I’m withdrawing as a matter of personal conscience? Or do you want me to say I’m withdrawing because of our company’s values?’ And I’m happy to say that unanimously, they said we want you to speak to the company’s values. No debate whatsoever.”

Frazier stated he by no means meant to grow to be a political lightning rod.

“I don’t believe that CEOs or businesses ought to be in the middle of political disputes. And I try to be very careful about whether I get involved in political disputes. But I also believe in the long run, we need to have an environment in our country that is conducive to commerce and conducive to people. And that comes down to a set of principles we were all taught early in school in this country. There are certain things like the rule of law, the right to vote, equal treatment, equal opportunity—that fundamental list of American values. And if…elected officials are abandoning or ignoring their responsibility to uphold those principles, it falls to the American people to ensure those principles are upheld. And I happen to think CEOs are among the most influential American people. So if people have a responsibility to stand up for principles, then I think CEOs ought to stand up for those principles.”

You can pay attention to the total interview on Apple or Spotify. More information beneath.

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Alan Murray@alansmurray[email protected]

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This version of CEO Daily was curated by Claire Zillman. 

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