Kenneth C. Frazier, 54

Kenneth C. Frazier, 54

Merck
President, Global Human Health

Kenneth Frazier is nothing if not persistent. Before joining Merck (MRK), the former partner at Philadelphia law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath once represented an Alabama man on death row for 10 years until the sentence was overturned. And as general counsel for Merck, Frazier opted to defend lawsuits individually against the pharma giant's painkiller Vioxx, which was withdrawn in 2004 after it was linked to heart attacks and strokes. The case-by-case strategy was deemed risky because it hinged on scoring early wins. But it paid off, with Merck settling most of the U.S. lawsuits pending in 2007 for $4.85 billion, far less than analysts' estimates, some of which ran as high as $50 billion. “If you believe what you're doing is right, it's important to persevere,” he says.

In his current role, Frazier oversees sales and marketing for the key pharmaceutical and vaccine businesses. But some believe it's Frazier's legal background that may ultimately win him a top job. Rival Pfizer (PFE) is led by lawyer Jeffrey Kindler. Standard & Poor’s (MHP) analyst Herman Saftlas notes that, with new health-care initiatives in Washington and Merck's proposed acquisition of Schering-Plough (SGP), “having a person with legal expertise is a major asset right now.”

--by Jena McGregor