In depth: A 2009 interview with John Fallon

In depth: A 2009 interview with John Fallon

The Bookseller's Catherine Neilan spoke to John Fallon in June 2009:

When John Fallon joined Pearson in 1997, the company was a very different beast from the one it is now. At the time of his arrival as communications director, the publisher owned a collection of relatively unrelated companies, including Lazards Investment
Bank, Pearson Television and Madame Tussauds. Pearson Education did not yet exist.

Fast-forward 12 years and, having disposed of some assets while buying up others, the company is one of the largest educational publishers in the world, with a presence in more than 110 countries. As chief executive of Pearson’s International Education business, Fallon is responsible for everything in the education division outside North America. International Education has had 14% year-on-year growth in the last five years hitting £866m in sales last year, which is split 50–50 between organic growth and acquisitions.

Pearson has made eight acquisitions in three years in various countries—the most recent of which is ELT publisher Wall Street English, acquired in April for $145m (£89m). ELT is a major area of growth for Pearson and Fallon cites some staggering statistics to reflect this. “There are now two billion people learning English, 300 million in China and 250
million in India,” he says. “Soon there will be more people speaking English in China than speak the language natively. So you can see why we are investing a lot in this area.”
This autumn, Pearson is bringing out the company’s own Pearson Test for English, which Fallon says will “compete directly” with tests run by Cambridge and Education Testing
Service. The pilot already has 275 universities willing to recognise the test, and he has no concern about entering a market with such well established players.

“The two tests that exist are both well respected, but the level of demand is such that students find it difficult to register,” says Fallon. “Our test is meeting a need.”

Despite a large proportion of his focus on the emerging markets—Fallon says he spends much of his working life “on a plane”—at a third of the international business, the UK is still vitally important, and expected to grow despite being a mature market. “In many ways the UK, certainly in primary and secondary schools, is one of the most advanced in the
world in terms of adopting technology,” Fallon says. He estimates that over the past five years, technology investment in British schools has been the highest proportion of total
spend of “pretty much any other country in the world”, and Pearson is at the forefront of this change in the way students learn. Bolt-on acquisitions such as the online learning platform Fronter, which will be used in “pretty much every school in greater London” by early next year, are helping to pave the way.

“We have all the pieces to really start to advance conversations with schools and universities around how we can use all these assets to really drive up standards. This is
not a market in which you want to be a standalone textbook publisher; there is a big shift towards partnering up to enhance learning and improve standards.”

The company’s North American base also means it “can afford investment in technology that any of our local competitors just operating in the UK would struggle to match”. For example, the MyLab software programme, a Q&A format that adapts to the individual’s responses and asks different questions depending on the answers already given, is starting to grow outside of North America, where it already has more than four million users.

Fallon’s enthusiasm for the many opportunities available to Pearson is palpable. “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he says. “I joined at a great time for the business. With a huge
amount of hard work, we have doubled the size of the business over the past few years. But the great thing is, we are just getting started.”