By Richard L. Williams
Growing up in the lakeside town of Davidson in northern Mecklenburg County, Willie Deese had options as to where he could attend college. He might follow in the footsteps of an older brother at N.C. A&T State University, or pursue admittance to Davidson College, likely with reduced tuition since his father worked there as a janitor.
He chose N.C. A&T. That was 43 years ago, and over the past four decades Deese has enjoyed a transcendent corporate career, mostly in the pharmaceutical industry, where he shattered every proverbial glass ceiling imaginable.
“To be honest with you, I never thought so much about breaking the glass ceiling as much as I thought about doing a great job for the companies that I worked for,” Deese says.
In June, Deese will retire as executive vice president and president of the Merck manufacturing division where he is responsible for more than 50 manufacturing and distribution sites with approximately 16,500 employees in more than 20 countries. With an operating budget of $8 billion, he oversees global procurement and is a member of the company’s executive committee.
During a wide-ranging interview in late April, Deese talked openly about leadership, the importance of mentoring, adapting to corporate culture, and the challenges he faced as an African American who worked his way into one of the top executives at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Two globes situated inside his office manifest his international perspective. An hourglass on the corner of his desk signifies the importance of punctuality.
Deese joined Merck as a senior vice president of global procurement in 2004 after having established a legacy of success as an executive and manager for pharmaceutical, healthcare and high-technology companies including GlaxoSmithKline, SmithKline Beecham, Kaiser Permanente, and Digital Equipment Corp. in Springfield, Mass.
“I spent 16 years at Digital Equipment Corp. after A&T and fell in love with manufacturing and procurement,” Deese says. “My objective was to run that plant one day and I was made plant manager at 34 years old.”
In 1992, Deese joined SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia, ultimately becoming vice president and director of purchasing. In 1996, he moved to Oakland, Calif., to serve as vice president of purchasing at Kaiser Permanente, the world’s largest integrated healthcare system. A year later, he returned to SmithKline Beecham as senior vice president and director or purchasing, and led the integration of the Glaxo and SmithKline procurement operations through a merger of the pharmaceutical behemoths. He was named senior vice president of global procurement and logistics for GlaxoSmithKline in 2001.
“A source of pride”
As Deese successfully rose through the ranks of corporate America, he never forgot those at N.C. A&T whom, he says, equipped him with the tools needed to have sustained success. He continues to give back to his alma mater in service and philanthropy and has donated nearly $4 million to the university. His generosity has subsidized many students’ education through scholarship creation, enhanced faculty development, and provided unrestricted support for various university divisions. Most recently, he was honored as the benefactor for the newly constructed Deese Clock Tower, which stands as the university’s tallest and most centralized structure.
“Dr. Quiester Craig, Dr. Danny Pogue and Dr. Lois Kinney and other administrative leaders and professors instilled in us that we could accomplish anything that we set our mind to,” Deese says. “They instilled in us that we were capable, that we could compete with other students around the country – period.
“They didn’t say that we could compete with students from other HBCUs,” Deese adds. “They said that we could compete with other students, period. And we were impressionable enough to believe it. We found out that we could.”
Craig arrived at N.C. A&T in 1972 as dean of the School of Business and Economics and rapidly transformed the school wherein students were heavily recruited by Fortune 500 companies and other major corporations across the U.S.
“Willie is a source of a lot of pride,” says Craig, who retired in 2013 after serving as dean for more than 40 years. “I had the pleasure of being his dean. He was a young man you could tell was positioned to do great things.”
Craig has kept in touch with his prized pupil over the years and recently spoke at two events where Deese was honored: a retirement celebration at the Governors Club Country Club in Chapel Hill and at the dedication of the Deese Clock Tower that was part of the university’s yearlong events celebrating its 125th anniversary. However, it was during an excursion a few years ago to Merck’s U.S. headquarters in New Jersey that made Craig feel as proud of Deese as if he were his own son.
“Willie had invited several of us from A&T up to Merck for a business meeting,” Craig says. “We’re there sitting in this large conference room and all of his vice presidents and other staff members were around him and he’s at the end of the table. I’m sitting there proud as can be. Well, when I finally was able to catch his eye, I winked at him and he smiled. That was a wink of pride.
“Among the things to admire about him is that as he progressed he brought people along with him,” Craig says. “He is a very passionate person and is very supportive of the university, especially those projects that pushed the competitive development of the students.”
In addition to being the benefactor of the Deese Clock Tower, the auditorium inside Craig Hall is named after his parents, Fred and Janie Deese. For years his philanthropic efforts have assisted high-achieving business students through the Deese Scholars program.
‘A turning point for me’
The late Dr. Pogue was the department’s chairman and became a mentor to Deese while at A&T. Before he joined Digital Equipment full time, Deese was encouraged by Pogue to accept a co-operative education assignment at Digital Equipment between his junior and senior years.
“I credit that as a turning point for me,” Deese says. “I was there with all these kids from these northern schools, and it was there that I found out that they were right – we can compete. It was also there that I sharpened my competitive spirit because I knew that that would be the competition for the rest of my career.”
Craig and Pogue instilled excellence and a sense of pride in their business students. Deese is but one of the program’s many shining stars who has excelled in corporate America.
“That was just who we were and that was who we were trained to be,” Deese says. “That if you got knocked down, you had to get up. If you got knocked down three times you got up four.”
He says he is glad that he chose N.C. A&T over hometown Davidson College.
“That was where I first saw African Americans running things and leading things and making a difference as the norm,” he says. “I then became convinced that I could do that.
“I was never afraid to take a risk, I was never afraid or reluctant to take on difficult assignments – often I volunteered for them,” Deese says. “When I didn’t volunteer, I was often ‘voluntold.’ I always looked for those stretch assignments. You should look for things that need to be done that would make a difference that are not necessarily part of your job description.”
Those things, Deese admits, are vital to personal and professional growth.
“If you’re doing the work every day you’re going to see some things that your bosses may not see,” he says. “And usually those things aren’t that easy to do and you have to be willing to put the time in as well as take the risks associated with doing it, because if it were easy it would have been done already and wouldn’t be there as an opportunity.”
‘Confident in my ability’
While Deese reached the top manufacturing position at Merck without any direct pharmaceutical manufacturing experience, he brought a wealth of manufacturing and supply-chain experience from the computer industry.
“There’re really only two outcomes you can have – you’re either going to be successful or you’re not,” Deese says. “I always took the approach that I will succeed or fail doing the things that I believe in. If you are reticent or afraid, you’re going to second guess what you’re doing and you’re going to take what would appear to be the safe approach in every case. You have to be careful when you are in manufacturing in the pharmaceutical world because what hangs in the balance is the safety and health of the people that take our medicines.
“The big difference with me was that the company needed someone with significant change-management experience,” Deese says. “I have done that with several companies. I believe leadership capabilities transcend functional capabilities. If you’re able to build a strong team around you and you have broad general knowledge of what it is you’re responsible for, then you should be able to lead the organization to accomplish its goals and objectives.”
Nonetheless, he still had to prove himself worthy of and qualified for the position, in the eyes of many.
“Early on there were some questions about how I would perform, but that question is always there for everyone,” Deese says. “Was the question perhaps more in depth with me? I would say probably, but I’ve always been very confident in my ability to understand challenging and complex issues.”
He says he never doubted his abilities or that he would succeed as president of manufacturing.
“I don’t think you can approach any job with fear,” he says. “You have to approach it with respect of the challenge, respect of the complexity; but if you’re afraid, you’re going to be paralyzed. One of the most powerful things I learned during the course of my 40-year career is you don’t have to know all the answers, but you do have to know the right questions to ask. If you ask the right questions, you’ll eventually get the right answer.”
Policies vs. Norms
One of the things Deese consistently did regardless of the company or job was to understand and embrace the corporate culture. This, he admits, is important to anyone looking for advancement in corporate America.
“An organization will always have its (written) rules and processes and policies … but the organizational norms and nuances tend not to be written,” Deese says. “And that’s where your ability to recognize and perceive what those are and to build relationships so those things get shared with you, is very important.”
One norm not found in any employee handbook is how early your supervisor expects you to arrive for a meeting. Deese says he typically shows up for meetings five to ten minutes early but is not offended if colleagues show up on time.
“But you should know what your boss’s preference is,” he adds. “I worked with bosses who said five minutes early was late, so you know if that’s their nuance then you need to be there six minutes early. It’s studying the environment you’re in and then adjusting to that environment.”
Deese says one of reasons he is mindful of mentoring young people and helping bring people along the trails he has blazed is because someone did the same for him in college and in corporate America.
“I had the good fortune at Digital Equipment to have mentors – African American and Caucasian – who invested in me,” Deese says. “Had I not had those experiences in college and early in my career, I don’t think I would have had the good fortune to achieve the things I was able to achieve. Therefore, if people made those kinds of investments in me and supported me, then I have to do the same for others. I think intrinsically for me it has always been a part of my makeup to do whatever I can to help other people succeed.”
African Americans in corporate America
For young African Americans entering the workforce, understanding cultural norms can mean the difference between being placed on the fast track for promotions or remaining anchored in entry level positions.
“Some people do not understand that those are things that form first impressions,” Deese says. “And once those first impressions are formed, if they’re not positive, they’re difficult to reform.
“Sometimes our kids – because many of them are first-generation college students – do not get the opportunity to benefit from that coaching at home. And if they don’t get it at home, they have to seek people inside the corporate framework who will share those lessons with them.”
Deese believes that there is more pressure today on African Americans entering corporate America than there was four decades ago when he graduated A&T and entered the workforce.
“Forty years ago when I came out of school the corporate environment was different,” Deese says. “I think they were more welcoming and accommodating to people of color because, quite frankly, it was new. Today, it is less welcoming and less accommodating so we have to do more in terms of preparation at our academic institutions. Not just academically, but socially, raising the ability to be politically astute so our students know how to navigate the waters, so to speak.”
‘Legacy of excellence’
Deese moved to North Carolina 15 years ago at the time of the GlaxoSmithKline merger before relocating to New Jersey with Merck. He is one of nine siblings to a father with a sixth-grade education and a mother who had an eleventh-grade education. Seven of the eight children who could attend college graduated – one of his sisters was a special-needs child and was unable to attend college – and five of them have advanced degrees.
“I learned from them the value of hard work and the value of faith and integrity,” Deese says. “Those values have stayed with me throughout my life and my career.”
He has been married for 38 years to the former Carol Chalmers, a retired Pennsylvania schoolteacher. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a bachelor’s degree in education and earned her MBA from Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa. They have one son, Brandon, a 33-year-old graduate of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts who after stints at ESPN, ABC and NBC now works at Sony Corp. as a web producer.
In addition to his degree in business administration at A&T, Deese in 1983 earned an MBA from Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. He serves on the board of Dentsply Sirona Inc., CDK Global Inc., and PSEG Inc. He previously was a member of the board of Healthcare Institute of New Jersey and Durham-based NCIMED.
Deese became associated with NCIMED (then N.C. Institute for Minority Economic Development) after he was named senior vice president of procurement for GlaxoSmithKline following the merger. He says he met with its founder, Andrea Harris, after several minority businesses in the Raleigh-Durham area complained about a new hire at GlaxoSmithKline – Deese – who was making policy changes unkind toward minority suppliers.
“We had implemented some policies and a number of minority suppliers … thought they were being negatively impacted,” Deese says. “She tracked me down – and as she likes to tell it, I was in the barbershop – and she wanted to know what I was doing and whether I was committed to minority businesses and equal opportunity. She found out that not only am I committed to it but that I am an advocate for it.
“The notion always has been that you not give favorable treatment to any one group; it’s that you assure fair and equitable treatment for everyone,” he says.
Deese says he is looking forward to retirement and plans to work with his son writing screen plays and travel the world as a tourist.
“I spent the last 11 years traveling around the world and not enjoying the places that I traveled to because it was all work,” he says. “Hopefully, now when I travel I will be able to enjoy the places that we go to see.”
He will continue to dedicate time to the one place that made possible all of his corporate success. The former chairman of the N.C. A&T board of trustees recently signed on as co-chairman of his alma mater’s capital campaign.
“I don’t see myself as the exception,” Deese says. “I see myself and my colleagues from that era as the beginning of what is now a 40-year legacy of excellence coming out of the School of Business and Economics from N.C. A&T.”
A TRANSCENDENT CAREER
|2008||Present||Merck, Executive VP and President, Manufacturing Division|
|2005||2007||Merck & Co., Inc., President, Manufacturing Division|
|2004||2005||Merck & Co., Inc., Senior VP, Global Procurement|
|2002||2004||GlaxoSmithKline, Senior VP, Global Procurement and Logistics|
|1997||2002||GlaxoSmithKline, Senior VP, Global Procurement|
|1996||1997||Kaiser Permanente, VP Purchasing, National Purchasing Organization|
|1995||1996||SmithKline Beecham, VP and Director, Purchasing, WSO|
|1992||1995||SmithKline Beecham, Director of Purchasing, Clinical Laboratories|
|1989||1992||Digital Equipment Corporation, Site Manager, Manufacturing|
|1976||1989||Digital Equipment Corporation, Operations/Procurement/Materials Manager|