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When Kenneth Frazier talks about how to make it in corporate America, it’s hard not to pay attention. A child of the inner city who went on to Harvard Law School and partnership at Philadelphia’s Drinker Biddle & Reath, he’s now at one of the pinnacles of his profession: general counsel and senior vice president of Merck & Co. Inc., the nation’s second-largest pharmaceutical company. As such, he’s a member of a very exclusive club — one of only 14 black general counsel in the Fortune 500. And that’s just the r�sum�. In person, the 46-year-old Frazier cuts a striking figure. Tall and blessed with incredible posture, he’s the picture of corporate success. But he’s no Wall Street stiff. Extremely engaging and unfailingly polite, he has a knack for putting people at ease. His technique: ask lots of questions and convey genuine interest in what the other person has to say. It’s disarming — and a good way for him to size up his audience. He gives the impression of someone who’s always in control. But there have been times when his success hasn’t come easily. In fact, a personal crisis at Drinker Biddle almost led him to abandon a corporate career entirely. In the process of resolving that dilemma, he figured out a way to operate in the business world that let him stay true to himself. That, ultimately, is what makes his story compelling: He’s made it on his own terms. Frazier’s journey began in Philadelphia, where he and his three siblings were raised by their father, Otis. (Their mother died when Frazier was young.) Frazier credits his father — a man with a third-grade education and the son of South Carolina sharecroppers — with planting the seeds for his future career. A janitor with United Parcel Service, the senior Frazier was responsible for pressing union members’ grievances with management. Watching his father, Frazier learned his first lessons in advocacy. Otis Frazier was a “poor man’s lawyer,” his son says, who “spoke with a moral authority that was disproportionate to his station in life.” At the family’s dinner table in the sixties, current events — especially relating to civil rights — were served in big helpings. The senior Frazier drilled his children on the events of the day: Martin Luther King, public accommodations, and the like. Growing up in a segregated community, they were prepared for racism by their father, who armed them with a simple message: They were not constrained by their circumstances, be it race or class. Though racism existed, success was attainable in the face of it. That lesson, Frazier says, has sustained him throughout his life. Pushed by his “loving but demanding” father, Frazier excelled academically. In 1971, at the age of 16, he entered the overwhelmingly white Pennsylvania State University as a freshman. Though he experienced a double whammy — culture shock and youthful freedom — he kept his bearings: “I knew what I was there for. Not wanting to disappoint my father gave me a counterbalance to the wildness of the period.” That focus led him on to Harvard Law School, where he experienced a culture shock of a different kind. Surrounded by Ivy League legacies, he felt separated from his peers not just by race but by class. The biggest jolt came after Frazier graduated from law school in 1978 and joined Drinker Biddle. He chose the firm for the same reason that many new graduates chose their first jobs — for the experience and training of a big firm — but, he says, “I did not think I would stay to be partner.” At the time, Drinker Biddle was an old-line WASP firm, the kind of place where the library held a copy of the Social Register next to the Martindale-Hubbells, and where partners would ask Frazier in all earnestness where he had prepped. At Drinker Biddle, though, Frazier hit a bump that almost derailed his entire career. An associate in the litigation department, he initially kept to himself and focused on his work. “I thought I could be successful by my skills alone,” he says. That proved to be na�ve. In his second year Frazier received a review that placed him squarely in the middle of his class. He was shocked. “It was the first time I got an average [review],” he explains. “In school, I was always better than average.” He also felt that the evaluation wasn’t “an accurate reflection of my skills and contributions.” And he suspected that race might have been a factor in his rating. Dispirited by the review, he looked for other options, finally deciding on a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Before taking the job, though, he stopped by the office of Melvin Breaux, the firm’s first black lawyer and partner, and the only other black lawyer at the firm. (Breaux is now general counsel of DVI Inc., a medical financial services company based outside of Philadelphia.) Though the two men were friendly, they weren’t close: They worked in different departments (Breaux was in banking), and were further separated by the associate-partner divide. But now, on the eve of his intended departure, Frazier sought Breaux’s opinion. The conversation that ensued changed Frazier’s life. Almost immediately, Breaux challenged Frazier’s rationale for leaving. He asked Frazier if he was running to something he really wanted, or just running away from the firm. He also told Frazier point-blank that he shouldn’t feel that his race would prevent him from succeeding at Drinker Biddle. Many of the lawyers there, Breaux reminded him, had faced similar struggles trying to fit into a WASP culture, citing the Irish Catholics, Jews and other ethnic minorities at the firm. Then Breaux delivered another blow: He told Frazier that he had put up a self-imposed barrier to his own success, and that he had falsely defined how he should behave in a white setting. Breaux’s advice: Play the game. The legal game, as Breaux defined it, is one based on relationships. Nurturing those relationships, and making people feel vested in your future, are the keys to success. Frazier didn’t take Breaux’s lecture well. “First, I was angry,” he recalls. “I thought he was an apologist for all things I thought wrong about the firm.” Frazier had gone into Breaux’s office expecting to be validated in his anger at Drinker Biddle: “Then somebody says your worldview is wrong and you must work harder to prove your bona fides — that’s not something you want to hear.” Breaux, Frazier initially felt, was “on their side.” But once Breaux’s words began to sink in, they hit a chord. “He helped me understand there was a clear trade-off” between developing relationships and success, Frazier says, adding: “Until that conversation, I didn’t understand the rules of engagement. [Breaux] helped me understand that there were social aspects to being a lawyer. If you want to have clients, you have to be the kind of person clients want to be with.” Taking this advice to heart, Frazier decided to stay at the firm, redirecting his energies on making partner. He pushed on two fronts — polishing his reputation as an ace litigator (he was already trying and winning cases) and, the more difficult task, thrusting himself into the social structure of the firm. He worked hard to ingratiate himself with the firm’s senior partners. “They are your first clients,” he says; to get the work that would further his career, he had to make them like him. To his surprise, Frazier found that the partners were receptive to his overtures. In fact, once he extended himself — such as accepting their social invitations — he discovered that “they were more than willing to reach out to me.” Still, playing the game with this crowd was “the hardest thing in my life,” he admits. “I had to be willing to create intimate relationships with people whose backgrounds could not have been more different than mine. Initially I felt I was selling out.” But gradually he learned the difference between selling out and the art of selling. He compares being a successful lawyer to being a salesman. A good salesman acts genuinely interested in a customer and the details of the customer’s life in order to make the sale, Frazier explains. But being a good salesman didn’t mean he had to change his identity: “Your public persona is not necessarily who you are as a person. There’s nothing about being a partner or associate that called on me to give up something that was really critical to me.” By his fourth year, he was getting good feedback, and he felt partnership was in the bag. Even after making partner, Frazier continued to cultivate relationships with partners and clients alike. He eventually assumed the mantle of point person for Merck, a longtime client of the firm. He then parlayed that relationship into a job offer from Merck, becoming the general counsel of one of its divisions, Astra Merck Group, in 1992. Once at Merck he rose quickly, assuming the company’s top legal post in December 1999. Both at Drinker Biddle and at Merck, Frazier went out of his way to develop key relationships that furthered his career. “Part of it was being comfortable at cocktail parties,” he says, “and part of it was just being open to relationships outside of the firm.” But, he adds, “I never played golf. I’ve never gone to that extreme. It was not my style.” Indeed, Frazier seems to have played the corporate game beautifully — but in his own style. He has been steadfast, for instance, in working for causes he believes in. While at Drinker Biddle he took four consecutive summer sabbaticals to teach trial advocacy in South Africa, both before and after apartheid. He explains that he did it to “even the scales between disadvantaged black lawyers and their white counterparts. I saw the bar [in South Africa] as a primary force against apartheid.” He also took on death penalty cases while at Drinker Biddle. Even after he left the firm to join Merck, Frazier continued to represent Bo Cochran, a death row defendant in Alabama. After 15 years on death row, Cochran was acquitted and freed in 1996, a victory that Frazier considers one of his best achievements. He doesn’t want to deliver a race-neutral message about how to succeed in America, Frazier emphasizes. Racism is a paradox: It is real, it persists, and it creates barriers, but people can achieve despite it. That lesson is essentially the same one he learned from his father and from Breaux, and one Frazier now eagerly teaches himself. Race, he explains, is a “quintessential first impression” in which certain ethnic groups are saddled with stereotypes. The way to disprove these stereotypes, he maintains, is to outperform people’s expectations. His favorite example: baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who made a career of stealing home. This was a feat, Frazier says, that required a mental agility that defied the stereotype of black athletes at the time. Putting the burden on people of color to prove themselves may strike some as old-fashioned or kowtowing to the majority culture. “People say it’s not fair,” he admits. “But my position is not that it’s fair or right, but that it is.” Too often, he says, our society insists that we make an either/or choice: Either believe in racism’s omnipotence, or deny its existence. It’s a false propostion, Frazier maintains. Nowadays, discussions on race often turn on historical injustices and the debt that society owes its victims. Frazier, however, skips over victimization, cultural or otherwise. He is a believer in self-determination — the notion that one can choose a path of success. “At the end of the day, you can only control yourself,” he says. “You can’t control what the other guy is thinking, so just ignore it. That’s just practical advice.” Of course, that philosophy works for Frazier because he’s an intensely competitive person who seems galvanized by challenges. Once you’re in the contest, he says, “you want to compete and win.” He quotes Tiger Woods on this score: “He said it well when he said, ‘Being second sucks.’” But Frazier admits he’s met his share of racism in his professional life, albeit mostly subtle. He recalls, for example, being suddenly pulled off client matters as a young associate: “I could see on the client’s face that they thought I wasn’t up for it.” He also remembers going into court and having a well-meaning but patronizing judge who decided to “help” Frazier along. He didn’t let these occasional slights get to him, Frazier says. “It’s important to reach an equilibrium where you don’t allow the exceptions to become the rule and spoil the whole experience,” he maintains. “It doesn’t mean you overlook them, but that you put them in perspective.” Frazier is ultimately a hard person to categorize. For starters, he is unapologetic about his support for affirmative action. “It’s important to cast a wide net,” as he says. But he adds that it’s critical that people demonstrate the requisite skills and be measured by objective standards. He also acknowledges that there can be tensions in his job. As head of Merck’s public affairs office, he strongly defends the company’s aggressive efforts to protect its drug patents. (Merck and other leading drug makers waged a bitter battle to keep South Africa from importing or making AIDS drugs in violation of the companies’ patents. Facing severe worldwide criticism, the companies recently dropped their lawsuit.) Price markups are criticial for drug companies to fund research, Frazier maintains. However, he concedes, there can be conflicts between maximizing shareholder value and meeting the needs of the sick. These days Frazier seems well able to manage the contradictions in his life. In fact, he says, “life is about managing paradoxes.” He’s long past having to prove himself, and he’s at a point where he’s comfortable with who he is and what he’s done. From his lofty perch at Merck headquarters in Whitehouse Station, N.J., Frazier’s race barely seems an issue. He doubts Merck CEO Raymond Gilmartin thinks about his being black much at all. And that’s the way he likes it: He prefers to just do his job. Even after all of the success that he has clearly accomplished on his own, Frazier still goes back to his father. He doubts his father, who lived to see him make partner at Drinker, would have been surprised by the scale of his success. Frazier says his father convinced him that his success would be inevitable: “I simply did what I was supposed to do.”

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