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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
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 Amazon.com, 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,"
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
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
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
Center, Lawrenceville 08648. Michael Brannick, president & CEO. 609-896-1800;
fax, 609-896-1811. Home page: http://www.Petersons.com.
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