Longtime Merck CEO, minority advocate Ken Frazier to retire

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FILE- This May 1, 2018, file photo shows Merck corporate headquarters in Kenilworth, N.J. Merck posted a big fourth-quarter loss, mainly due to much higher spending on research, production and overhead, and announced longtime chief executive, Kenneth Frazier, will retire on July 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

KENILWORTH – Longtime Merck executive Ken Frazier, whose leadership helped bring the drugmaker one of the most lucrative medicines in history and who is one of the few remaining Black CEOs of a major corporation, is retiring.

Frazier, Merck’s CEO since early 2011 and an advocate for minority advancement who took on then-President Trump’s tacit support of white supremacists, will retire on June 30.

Frazier, 66, will be replaced by Rob Davis, the chief financial officer since 2014, the company said Thursday as it announced quarterly financial results. Frazier will become executive chairman of the board during a transition period. The change comes just months after Dr. Dean Li took over as head of Merck's research and development.

Frazier joined Merck, now based in Kenilworth, New Jersey, in 1992 as general counsel to one of the company's pharmaceutical businesses and worked his way up to the top job. He is one of the few Black CEOs at the head of a Fortune 500 company.

Last month, when Walgreens named Roz Brewer as its new CEO, there were four. With Frazier's departure, that number is back down to three.

Black people make up 12.8% of the U.S. population but only 0.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are African-American. They earn 10% of all college degrees and hold 8% of professional positions, but only 3.2% of all senior-level roles at Fortune 500 companies, according to Coqual, a think tank that studies workplace diversity.

The main reason companies have few Black CEOs is that many rely on long-held perceptions of who has the skills to move into leadership roles, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “Usually those images are not people of color, and usually they’re not of white women,” said Harvey Wingfield, who has researched racial and gender inequity in professional occupations. “What’s unspoken is these people are usually white men.”

Corporate policies about making promotions often are unclear, and research shows that Black workers are less likely to enter departments that channel workers into leadership roles, she said. “If you run a company and your view is just that implicitly you don’t see Black people as suitable for those types of jobs, chances are it’s going to be more difficult for them to get those types of jobs,” Harvey Wingfield said.