Interviews – Media – Pippa Wicks

Pippa Wicks, 37, is chief executive of FT Knowledge, a recently created division of UK media company Pearson that is charged with creating online learning programmes aimed at schools, colleges and universities around the world. Wicks was recently chosen to be one of the faces for the current exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, Management Today, Management Tomorrow, depicting the UK’s new ‘masters of the economic universe’

What does your role as chief executive of FT Knowledge involve?
FT Knowledge is Pearson’s management education, business education and finance education division. Our mission is to grow very aggressively in this area, aiming to be five to ten times bigger than we are today, in three to five years.

How much will FT Knowledge’s success depend on its ability to exploit the potential of the Internet?
About half of what we do at present is based on multimedia and that will probably increase. It is a very important part.

How difficult is it proving for the traditional media companies to convince shareholders about the value of going online?
It seems to have been very straightforward. The Internet products that Pearson has introduced, which include my area of the business, are quality products that work. Whether you look at FT.com or the products we use to do online training, they are effective.

We have delivered very quickly and very well, so we have found the transformation relatively easy.

You have been very successful in life, very quickly. Can you tell me the reason?
Serendipity. Also, I’m pretty energetic, that helps.

I left university to become a vet, but I couldn’t get a grant to pay for the training. I went to work for management consultancy Bain & Co instead, because they had a very meritocratic culture and they were very energetic – I suspect that was because of their American culture. I heard it was a good working environment.

I joined Bain thinking I would get a very good grounding from which to go forward after two years or so. In the end, I ended up working there for eight years. I had expected to do a lot of paper-based studies there, but I ended up doing a great deal of client-based work.

One day I went to Courtaulds textiles to have a cup of tea and I ended up getting a job. I worked there for a year as a business development manager, then they offered me the role of finance director. It was the last job I ever thought I would go into, but it actually turned out to be great fun. I did that for seven years and was then about to take a position as finance director at a FTSE 100 company. When I told a friend at Pearson that I was thinking of taking it, they said they hadn’t known I was looking for a job, and told me to go and take a vacancy at Pearson.

What are your ambitions for the next few years?
They lie here at FT Knowledge. We have big plans to grow and develop things, and I want to make sure we do that.

Is it difficult to feel important working for a big company?
Pearson is what I would call a big small company. We are very autonomous and we can always move very quickly. Marjorie Scardino is often talking to me about the importance of young talent being offered the opportunity to move forward quickly, because she knows that I was given such an opportunity myself.

You’re obviously involved in the Internet training strategy at Pearson. How important is it for your recruits to have a solid grounding in the Internet if you are going to consider taking them on?
You can learn that on the job. The most important thing we are looking for when we recruit is attitude. If people possess the basic raw materials in terms of brain power and attitude, we feel we can teach people the rest.

How do you see Pearson developing over the next five years?
I think online development will obviously be very important. We need to build on the great brand names we already have – the Financial Times, Penguin, all the things that fall into Pearson’s education stable and so on. The Internet is going to be differentiated by brand name and content, so it is important we get that right.

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