The Investment Column: Pearson faces Internet test

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The Independent Online
INTERIM FIGURES yesterday from Pearson give clues to the transformation of the group from a leisure and media conglomerate into a tightly focused content provider. The $4.6bn (pounds 2.88bn) acquisition of Simon & Schuster's educational business means that along with Addison Wesley Longman and Penguin, publishing was almost two-thirds of total first-half sales of pounds 1.3bn. FT Group sales, including the Financial Times and business newspapers in Spain and France accounted for around a quarter of sales, with Pearson Television making up the remainder.

Despite the time and money spent on acquisitions and disposals, the most important task facing the chief executive Marjorie Scardino now is the Internet. Here, opportunities and dangers go hand-in-hand. While Pearson has led its UK rivals in investing in the Net, it faces, as a globally oriented content provider, heavy fire from a slew of big competitors. Then there's highly funded, agile upstarts using the Internet to chip away at the education and financial information publishing markets to worry about. There's no doubt Pearson has the content to be a winner. But it will need to enhance its knowledge and management resources, probably through acquisitions, to be absolutely sure of success.

Ms Scardino's bold pledge exactly two years ago to reshape the group into fewer, larger, globally oriented businesses has succeeded more rapidly and comprehensively than most deemed possible. That's seen its shares double, well ahead of Ms Scardino's five-year goal.

But in recent months, the shares have slipped to the point where their outperformance of the media sector stands at only 10 per cent. This represents a buying opportunity, a fact not lost on the market yesterday when an early decline in the share price gave way to strong buying, amid expectations analysts are set to upgrade forecasts. Buy.