New Pearson boss plans pounds 1bn sell-offs

Media and leisure group Pearson is poised to unveil a rolling programme of sell-offs worth over pounds 1bn as new chief executive Marjorie Scardino completes a strategic review.

At the very least, the City expects stakes in satellite broadcaster BSkyB and merchant bank Lazards to be sold, along with loss-making US multi- media firm Mindscape, as well as the disposal or demerger of Tussauds leisure, which takes in Madame Tussauds and Alton Towers.

This weekend, Pearson attempted to downplay expectations that news would accompany its annual results on 17 March.

Those figures will be hit by a pounds 100m loss from an accounting fraud at Penguin books in the US, the latest disappointment to hit the group.

The tidying-up exercise has already started, however, with the pounds 111m sale 10 days ago of its 10 per cent stake in Hong Kong's Television Broadcasts.

Mrs Scardino only took up the reins in January, but the appointment was announced in October and, quoting General Douglas MacArthur, she started her tenure with the maxim: "Have a plan, execute it violently and do it today."

Since then, she has been silent but in an interview in the March edition of Director magazine, she has emphasised her vision of Pearson as a pure media group.

Analysts estimate Tussauds might fetch pounds 270m, the Lazards stake over pounds 300m, Pearson's 4.3 per cent of BSkyB pounds 400m, with the value of Mindscape - a disastrous $462m (pounds 285m) acquisition in 1993 - still uncertain.

That would leave the group with the Financial Times, publishers Penguin, Longman and Harper Collins and Pearson TV, headed by Greg Dyke.

Despite the huge sums, however, the City views such likely disposals at just nibbling around the edges.

"The core issue is are they going to keep the business of financial information delivery and TV production," said Anthony de Larrinaga, media analyst at brokers Panmure Gordon.

"These are big markets with big competitors. To get towards market leadership will be very expensive."

Mr Dyke has been attempting a management buyout of the division, but the City is divided on whether Mrs Scardino will sell.

Pearson also poured cold water on reports last week, originating from a TV industry dinner, that key staff would also quit if Mr Dyke was forced out.

"They have all admitted they were all drunk," a Pearson spokeswoman said.

Pearson has been adding to its financial publishing side recently and is currently looking, along with Thomson, at Institutional nvestor, one of several titles being sold by Disney.

The key question, however, is how far Pearson goes into electronic publishing.

Its Extel subsidiary is an also-ran in real-time information and there has been talk Pearson might buy Bloomberg, which is now in partnership with the Independent on Sunday.

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