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Author: Barbar Fox. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 8, 2000. All rights reserved.

New Paradigm And New Address at Peterson’s

On Monday, March 6, when 250 Peterson’s employees reported

for work, on each desk were some token presents and a box of business

cards with their new address. Over the weekend their office had moved

from 51,000 square feet at 202 Carnegie Center to 62,500 feet in the

second and third floors of the new building at 2000 Lenox Drive, Princeton

Pike Corporate Center. This move signifies one more step on CEO Michael

Brannick’s path to totally reform this company from the inside out.

Peterson’s Guides was founded by Peter and Casey Hegener as a mom

and pop business that published books on college selection. Then it

was a boot camp for apprentice writers who toiled to assemble the

valuable charts and indexes. Figure out what you were looking for

in a college (lacrosse, for example, and Soviet studies) and run your

finger through the tables to see which colleges had a check in both

those columns.

It’s a different world now, a webcentric world, where all those details

can be put on databases available for instant searches. The Hegeners

had moved their company from Bunn Drive across Route 1 to the Carnegie

Center, and early in 1995 they had moved aggressively into cyberspace

to put up a webpage, but when they were bought later that year by

Thomson Corporation, a Canadian firm, the new owners wanted to move

even faster. In the model of, Brannick cut down on keystrokers

and paper shufflers and staffed up on web developers, editors, and

marketers, and when he had reorganized the workforce, it needed a

new workspace. Hence, the move.

Peterson’s is the lead tenant in the flagship building of George Sowa’s

Brandywine Realty Trust. Designed by Rothe Johnson, it is also the

first building to go up in this office complex in 10 years. Moving

here gave Peterson’s the chance to reconfigure space and rewire workstations

in one fell swoop. "We needed more space and a different type

of space, and it was easier to build that out than to retrofit our

existing location where our lease was coming to an end," says


The Carnegie Center offices were divided between the first and third

floors and there were only four conference rooms, but the new quarters

are on contiguous floors and have nine conference rooms. The computer

servers are centralized and three wires go to each workstation, two

for data and one for voice. Moving here also gave most Peterson’s

workers a shorter commute, because the majority travel from the south.

The parent company is using Peterson’s as a poster child for what

all its other companies should be doing. says Brannick: "Thomson’s

goal is to transform all its publishing. We are important to Thomson

in that regard. We have been on a three-year trek in earnest to expand

the services we offer to educational institutions and consumers via

the Internet. Peterson’s historically was a telephone book for educational

institutions, but now the basic data is on the web, where it should

be, easily searchable, selectable, and navigable."

When Brannick restructured the organization, he changed from a publishing

model (with separate organizations for editorial, design, and database

personnel) to a product development model (organized around customer

groups — consumers, or schools, or corporations). "That was

a pretty significant sea change and resulted in hiring of new types

— web developers, database people in IT areas, and editorial areas

that were more focused on data interpretation rather than configuring

data," he says.

Brannick spent most of his career developing ways to think about technology

as an enabler of learning. The oldest of nine children, he grew up

in New York, where his father worked for AT&T, and he has both a degree

in English from Niagara University, Class of 1970, and a master’s

degree in industrial psychology from California State at Long Beach.

He has worked at Opinion Research of California, Smooth Tool Company,

and National Education Corporation, a for-profit firm focused on the

adult education/computer training market. At Jostens Learning Corporation,

as senior vice president of business development, he installed enterprise-wide

instructional materials for elementary schools.

Instead of just selling a reading and math program that could be taught

in a computer lab, he put in a broader range of products, all tied

to computers. "In Dade County, Florida, we wired 21 schools to

be fully integrated across the classrooms, built performance metrics

to look at learning gains, built reporting systems to report to teachers

and administrators what those gains were, and built teacher training

programs to address the reports in interactive ways so the teachers

could replicate best practices. It was a much more significant set

of activities and a much larger sale than Jostens had had previously,"

he says.

His boss was hired to be chief operating officer at Thomson and persuaded

Brannick to come along. Brannick moved from San Diego to Pennington

with his wife and two school-age children and took over as CEO 18

months ago. "It was always part of the plan that the management

of Peterson’s would transition to Thomson’s over a period of time,"

Brannick notes. Peter and Casey Hegener are embarked on their new

venture, e-Park.

Brannick is keeping Peterson’s firmly in the content business. "We

do our own development but we host our web services out of house,"

he says. The servers for the web products are located in Weehawken,

where they are hosted and maintained by Exodus, the company dedicated

to this service. "This frees up our resources for building the

applications," he says.

Much of what Peterson’s does is visible to the consumer. The firm

takes 82,000 surveys annually. Not just colleges are surveyed for

their information, but also private secondary schools, summer camps,

summer study abroad, graduate programs, corporate training, scholarships,

specialty areas such as nursing and paralegal programs, and various

majors. These databases are packaged both for the web and for books.

The web properties, for instance, grew 100 percent last year and had

9.2 million unique visitors. Online admissions, financial aid, and

testing are expected to grow astronomically, and Peterson’s is partnering

with the heavy hitters — GMAC, Sylvan Learning, and Educational

Testing Service.

Yet there is still a market for books. "Our book business grew

25 percent this year, and we are quite happy with that and think books

will be around for a long time to come," says Brannick. "What

is in print is how to interpret the information and how to make it

useful for the consumer."

Brannick tries to make a lofty case for how accessible information

on schools is going to result in a better society. "One of the

issues among educational consumers is how you put the right student

to the right program," says Brannick. "The match between those

doesn’t get made well often enough and results in drop outs and lack

of consumer confidence in the value of lifelong learning. Those are

serious societal problems if we are to grow a worker base. We offer

services that make it easier and faster and better — what our

websites are configured to do."

Less visible are Peterson’s consulting services to help institutions

incorporate technology to enable learning and save money too. The

consulting practice that the Hegeners established in 1969 has revved

up for cyberspace. For instance, the company sells software and processes

school videos to digitize them for web or CD-based delivery. "Any

educational institutions, from those selling seats to a seminar for

secretaries to an Ivy League institution, is grappling with the opportunities

and challenges presented by technology," says Brannick. "Those

institutions are in a lot of different places in their use of methods

to enable learning."

Does a summer camp need sign-ups? It can list the basic information

for free in Peterson’s book and online database, as Princeton Ballet

School does, so that when someone searches on "ballet" the

site will come up. Or pay up to $1,585 for an indepth description

complete with snapshot, institutional photo, and 100 words of text.

The Hun School and Westminster Choir College paid for this extra exposure.

These data sets work both ways. Brannick can sell lists of guidance

counselors to colleges — and lists of college departments to textbook

publishers. Do you want to sell sculpting tools to art departments?

Peterson’s has labels for 101 department heads for applied arts or

2,334 general art departments.

What Brannick is doing now in cyberspace certainly has its roots in

the early years of the company. As he says, the vision is "reflective

of our past and hopeful about the future." But just as he inherited

a pioneering spirit, he also took over a workplace with a reputation

for being hard on its employees.

Brannick says he has heard all those stories. "That’s why I have

been as welcomed as I have," he says, "and why my message

of `I care about you but I demand a lot of you’ has been well received."

One example: to celebrate the move the HR department ordered business

cards for everyone in the company at all levels, not just those who

usually got them.

Brannick credits his success in smoothing feathers and urging greater

efforts partly to the way he was brought up. "My parents taught

me I could do anything and be anything, but I was the oldest of nine,

and the oldest of a reasonably large group of cousins, and they had

very high expectations." He remembers intensive coaching sessions

of the "my way or the highway" style. "I learned that

I needed to lead by example, and that I needed to think of myself

rather than the family."

One anecdote that has gone into Brannick folklore is the time when

all nine siblings (apparently this was in the days before cars had

seatbelts for each occupant) were piled into the family car for an

trip to the Adirondacks, and his father pulled up next to a stream

so everybody could get out and wash the car. The car got stuck. Commanded

his father, "Michael, run to the gas station." The gas station

was five miles away, but Michael ran. Now, when the siblings are talking

about who is responsible for what, they repeat the catch phrase that

means "let’s let Michael do it."

Brannick says he draws on this coaching style now. "I like to

think I am a nice guy but am also a demanding guy, that I set high

standards for myself first, and then for others," says Brannick.

"If they meet those standards, I am quite proud of them, and if

they don’t, I coach and mentor them so they do."

Another significant influence, he believes, is his industrial psychology

degree. "I thank my lucky stars that I was taught to observe behavior,"

he says. "Creating an environment where people can do the right

thing is what my job as a CEO is all about. I am proud of what I have

been given and darn happy that I have it. It is wonderful place from

which to build."

— Barbara Fox

Peterson’s, 2000 Lenox Drive, Princeton Pike Corporate

Center, Lawrenceville 08648. Michael Brannick, president & CEO. 609-896-1800;

fax, 609-896-1811. Home page:

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