Empire that struck oil and spread everywhere

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

LORD Blakenham liked to call the Pearson empire a 'concentrated conglomerate'. Others called it a collection of rich men's playthings, writes Russell Hotten. The sprawling 150-year-old company earned the label 'conglomerate' long before the term became fashionable.

Before the Second World War Pearson owned companies involved in oil, engineering, banking and newspapers. It has added an odd mix of interests, including Alton Towers and Warwick Castle, the publishers Longman and Penguin and Royal Doulton fine china.

The company began in 1844 when Samuel Pearson became a partner at a small Yorkshire building firm. Under his son, Weetman, S Pearson & Son became the world's largest building contractor. But the family fortunes were made when Weetman visited Texas during the discovery of oil in 1901. He impulsively cabled his man in Mexico to buy up thousands of acres of land there, and he too discovered oil.

In 1919, by now Viscount Cowdray, he sold the oil business to Royal Dutch Shell and invested the proceeds in Lazard Brothers and the Westminster Gazette. This was the basis for Pearson's expansion of the Westminster Press chain of provincial newspapers.

In 1927, under Viscount Cowdray's son, Clive, Pearson bought British Airways, a small domestic airline which was compulsorily acquired by the Government when war broke out. The third Lord Cowdray became chairman in 1954, buying Royal Doulton, Chateau Latour, Penguin, and the Financial Times. Pearson, which he took to the market in 1969, is now worth pounds 2.5bn.

Lord Blakenham, grandson of the second Viscount Cowdray, became chairman in 1983. Since then Pearson has focused more on a limited number of chosen business areas.

About pounds 1.6bn has been invested in core activities and the strengthening of Pearson's position in information and entertainment. Disposals have included the Chateau Latour vineyard and interests in building products, sanitary ware, film production, glass and engineering.