IF MARJORIE SCARDINO isn’t quite as familar a name as Michael Dell or Tom Hicks, maybe that’s because you’re not reading The Times of London. Or, for that matter, the Financial Times, which happens to be one of the marquee properties (along with Penguin Publishing, a half-share of The Economist, and the TV production company responsible for Baywatch) of Pearson PLC, the media conglomerate that tapped her as its chief executive officer in early 1997.

Scardino, 52, grew up in Texarkana, and if the notion of an East Texas gal presiding over a stodgy British boardroom isn’t novel enough, consider this: She is the first female CEO of a major British company, period. She is also the U.K.’s highest-paid publishing executive. In 1998 she earned 1.04 million pounds, or about $1.7 million; 60 percent of it was in performance-driven bonuses, as Pearson’s sales, operating profit, and cash flow all moved upward last year.

That success has come largely because of judicious but aggressive wheeling and dealing. Under Scardino, for instance, the company has shed $3.2 billion worth of assets, including Madame Tussaud’s and a stake in the Lazard investment bank, while shelling out $4.7 billion for Simon and Schuster’s educational publishing business. That purchase, combined with Pearson’s established Addison Wesley Longman imprints, gives it 24 percent of the U.S. textbook market. Next up: ushering the educational operation onto the Internet and continuing the Financial Times’ inroads into the U.S. market (it has a circulation of 80,000 here).

A Baylor University alumnus who earned a law degree from the University of San Francisco, Scardino previously spent twelve years with the Economist Group (including four as CEO) and, before that, close to a decade with the Georgia Gazette in Savannah. She co-founded that paper with her husband, Albert, a Pulitzer prize—winning journalist. The couple has three children, the youngest of whom, fourteen-year-old Hal, went Hollywood as the star of the 1995 movie The Indian in the Cupboard.

Since Scardino came aboard, Pearson’s stock price has more than doubled (it was $22 as of August 10). The Herald of Glasgow says she “put her head on the block” by promising the company would have double-digit growth every year, and so far her word has been good. Naturally, her pattern of bold talk followed by decisive action has Fleet Street’s financial scribes gleefully trotting out metaphors—the Guardian has dubbed her “the Texas Titan” and “the Corporate Cowgirl,” while delighting in her fondness for a quote attributed to Douglas MacArthur: “Have a good plan, execute it violently, and do it today.” For Marjorie Scardino, it’s not just empty talk.