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Top employer hit with merger jitters

Workers at textbook publisher McDougal Littell, Evanston’s biggest private-sector employer, are filled with doubts about the future of their jobs after a major corporate merger today.

McDougal’s parent, Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin Company, announced it has completed the purchase of Harcourt Education and other assets from London-based Reed Elsevier.

The deal means McDougal, headquartered at 909 Davis St., will merge with Harcourt’s Holt, Rinehart and Winston division, based in Austin, Texas, forming a new unit called Holt McDougal.

About 400 McDougal employees were called to a meeting at the Orrington Hotel Thursday morning for a briefing on the deal, which did not answer questions about whether their jobs might be eliminated or moved to Texas, or whether it will lead to more jobs here.

They did learn that McDougal’s president, Rita Schaefer, will be leaving. She will be succeeded by Holt President Allen Wheatcroft.

Wheatcroft joined Holt two years ago after three years as chief operations officer for the Glenview-based Scott Foresman division of Pearson publishing.

"It’s always alarming when you see all the people in suits with roller bags that you’ve never seen before roaming around the office," one McDougal employee said.

The worker, who asked to remain anonymous because of the uncertainty of the situation, added, "Things are tense here, but I’m just going to roll with it."

Another source in the Evanston business community said early indications are that the creative staff is likely to remain in Evanston but that there are bigger questions about the future of the sales force, which is based in Evanston but spread across the country.

McDougal Littell was founded in 1969 and got its start publishing supplementary soft-cover textbooks for high school English teachers.

It was acquired by Houghton Mifflin in 1994. Since 2002 Houghton Mifflin has been owned by private investment firms Thomas H. Lee Partners, Bain Capital and funds managed by The Blackstone Group.

A call placed this afternoon to a Houghton Mifflin spokesman in Boston was not immediately returned.

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