Pearson splashes out to secure former Disney exec Bird as CEO

LONDON (Reuters) – Education publisher Pearson PSON.L has tapped Andy Bird as its next chief executive, turning to a media veteran who helped build Walt Disney’s DIS.N consumer online business to complete its tricky digital transformation.

FILE PHOTO: Caidence Miller, a 4th grader at Cottage Lake Elementary, works with his grandmother Chrissy Brackett as they try to figure out how to navigate an online learning system. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

The British company, which has endured a tumultuous four years as it adapts from selling textbooks to online courseware, said it had agreed to pay more than normal to secure such a “rare” talent whose experience fits with Pearson’s requirements.

Bird will replace John Fallon, who cut thousands of jobs and sold off assets in response to a string of profit warnings during his more than seven years in charge of the world’s biggest education group.

The new CEO will receive a salary of $1.25 million, the chance to double that if he hits targets, the opportunity to earn more again if he beats targets, and shares that vest over three years, currently worth around $9.3 million.

Bird will also buy Pearson shares worth $3.75 million.

“This talent is very rare and very much in demand. All of his experiences are relevant to our journey,” Chairman Sidney Taurel told Reuters.

Analysts welcomed the appointment. Although Bird does not have direct experience in education, he has been on Pearson’s board since May and helped develop Disney’s direct-to-consumer strategy.

He will be tasked with returning Pearson to growth after students in the United States stopped buying expensive text books and started renting or accessing online courseware.

Earlier this year the company maintained its dividend to shareholders even as many major British firms were forced by the COVID-19 crisis to cut payouts, as the pandemic helped accelerate a shift to digital learning as schools and colleges shut.

The company has previously done well during economic downturns, when people out of work return to higher education.

Bird’s incentive package needs to be approved for his appointment to be confirmed.

Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Sarah Young, David Holmes and Jan Harvey

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