Frazier Takes Charge

March 7, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It's not clear whether interesting experiences find Ruth Frazier or she finds them. In any case, her resume is one of a kind.

As chief operating officer for Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, she's responsible for directing the daily business operations of the law firm and coordinating business planning efforts.

Frazier joined Smith Haughey in January, bringing with her more than 15 years of experience in law firm administration.

Some law firms, like Smith Haughey, are adopting corporate forms of governance with CEOs and the like, and Frazier found that attractive about the firm. She helped develop her own position there as COO.

Frazier had served from 1971 to 1985 as director of the Southwest region for one of the Big Five accounting firms, managing offices in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and Denver. She did financial reporting and handled accounting matters, information services and human resources. She was a "pioneer" in that respect, having been the first woman ever to be elevated to that level of management within the firm.

During her tenure there she was handed responsibility for coordinating outside counsel for a complex legal case the company was involved in. Work on the case extended over 10 years and regularly brought her in contact with a lot of attorneys. She discovered that she really enjoyed working with lawyers, and law firms became the focus for the next leg of her career.

"It's challenging and stimulating. Attorneys have a high degree of confidence. In every law firm there is a culture of individuals that constantly believe they have the right interpretation," she said.

Frazier, who has an MBA from WayneStateUniversity, left the accounting firm in 1985 after the case was wrapped up, and has since been working with and acting as a consultant to a variety of mid- to large-sized law firms.

In 1990, while she was with a law firm in Fort Wayne, Ind., she and 13 other legal administrators around the country were tapped by Mikhail Gorbachev to assist the Soviet Union in setting up a legal system with a Western world flavor.

"None of us knew why and never really found out why we were selected," Frasier said. "We all seemed to come from different backgrounds. There were representatives of courts and all facets of law in the United States. Apparently, I represented the financial side. I had written the guidelines for the American Bar Association on how to budget for a law firm. Maybe that's how I came to be selected, but I don't know."

Frazier and the others spent nearly a year preparing for the visit and took language and protocol courses through the State Department. They spent six months in Russia working on the project. The nation disbanded the following year, so nothing came of the blueprint the group had mapped out, she said.

More recently, while working for a law firm in Detroit, Frazier helped write the guidelines for disaster recovery law, which were approved by Homeland Security. How she got into that is a story in itself.

The building her firm was headquartered in also housed a federal bankruptcy court on the 21st floor, she explained.

"When anyone didn't want to go to court or was dissatisfied with the decisions coming out of court, they'd go by and pull the fire alarm, so we were constantly having fire drills. Sometimes people who didn't want to go to court called in bomb threats. In one year we would have five or six fire drills and three or four bomb threats."

She said building tenants were "terribly upset" with security in the building, as well as the fact that building management didn't always inform them when a bomb threat occurred, because the threats had become so routine.

So they assembled a committee that included representatives of every segment of the firm and set about creating a recovery plan that covered every disaster scenario that could possibly play out inside the building. In the event of building damage, they also wrote guidelines for how to "recreate" the firm offsite within 24 hours.

They borrowed the basic disaster recovery plan from the Michigan State Highway Patrol and spent six months customizing it for their own security needs. Frazier invited a representative from Homeland Security to sit in on the meetings, which he did. After they finalized the plan, he had it approved by the agency.

"The city of Detroit had never been involved with an entity that had created their own disaster plan, so it was an education for them," Frazier said. "They took our plan and used it as a model."

Frazier also is a licensed pilot. She flies to various vacation spots and to her family home in Ohio

"When I was 16 years old my father took me to the airport and said, 'We're going to learn how to fly.' The purpose was to teach me confidence. I was the youngest of seven children, and he thought anyone who had reached the age of 16 ought to be a pilot. So I became a pilot."

She also has traveled extensively. Next up are visits to Australia, Scotland and Alaska. A close friend of Frazier's is a native of Australia who has visited here three times. She's going to reciprocate by visiting her friend in her homeland. Frazier and her husband, Wendell, have traced his family roots back to John Frazier, who was born in 1722 in the Highlands of Scotland, and they intend to delve more deeply into that heritage on a visit there. Her husband's father helped build the first railroads in Alaska in the early 1900s, so they're planning a trip there to do the same.

"I have been a person who has been in the right place at the right time. I've had many, many blessings for I don't know what reason," she reflected.

She appears to be energized by her new position at Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge.

"There is always something different or more challenging to do. This is where I want to be right now."    

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