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Among WSP’s high-profile projects is the Shard, an 87-storey tower in London.Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press

When WSP Global Inc. chief executive officer Pierre Shoiry told those gathered at the Montreal engineering firm's annual investor day this past June that it aimed to become a 45,000-employee company by 2020, the aspirational goal left more than a few people dumbstruck.

After all, its head count at the time was barely 17,000. Here was management saying this under-the-radar company could be as big as hometown rival SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and maybe even bigger.

But big walk sometimes follows big talk. WSP's next major purchase – the $1.35-billion (U.S.) deal for U.S. transportation infrastructure specialist Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) – came barely three months later. Suddenly, WSP had 31,500 workers. And what seemed like a far-fetched growth ambition back in the summer now looks achievable.

In an industry dented by scandal and corruption, at least in Quebec, Canada has a new potential pretender to the engineering design throne. And as WSP expands internationally, engineering some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, its roots as the Quebec City boutique player Genivar Inc. drift further and further into the past. (The company voted to change its name and direction in May, 2013. The change went into effect in January, 2014.)

"I think we have a lot of people looking at what we're doing now," Mr. Shoiry, 57, said in a recent interview. "And I say this very humbly: What we're doing right now is some pretty hot stuff and some pretty complicated stuff."

Unlike SNC-Lavalin, which also builds projects, WSP is a pure-play engineering design consultancy. It sells only expertise. And that expertise is being increasingly tapped by the some of the world's leading institutions.

Among WSP's most high-profile projects is the Shard, an 87-storey glass pyramidal tower in London that's currently the tallest building in the European Union. The company also acted as structural engineer on New York's 541-metre tall Freedom Tower, built on the site of the World Trade Centre. It is doing what it calls the "superskinny" tower at 432 Park Ave., also in that city, which will be the tallest residential tower in the Western hemisphere when it's completed. And it's advising on an even skinnier building at 111 West 57th St.

Other projects include Goldman Sachs' European headquarters revamp in London and a new subway system job in Stockholm. Dundee Capital Markets estimates the company will generate earnings per share of $2.07 in 2015 on revenue of $4-billion, up from a forecasted $1.65 per share on $2.3-billion of revenue for 2014.

When it comes to momentum, Canada's two largest engineering firms now appear to be on very divergent paths.

With its recent purchase of Kentz Corp. Ltd., SNC-Lavalin has doubled its bet on oil and gas just as the sector enters a new period of volatility. The shares are down 31 per cent since hitting a three-year peak in July.

As long-time SNC shareholder Stephen Jarislowsky said: "We're not obviously happy with what's going on. The fact that the mining business is bad, that the oil business is bad, is not helpful."

Meanwhile, WSP struck its deal for New-York based Parsons Brinckerhoff at an opportune moment. With nearly three-quarters of PB's EBITDA generated by its U.S. business as of last June, the combined company is now even stronger in the United States – the world's current growth engine. And it cut its dependance on Canada's natural-resource-heavy economy.

"With commodity markets cooling off, [the company's] timing to scale up its U.S. exposure could not have been better timed," Dundee Capital Markets analyst Maxim Sytchev said in a Nov. 26 note. "Buildings, infrastructure and transportation verticals are really what's driving the bus now for WSP. [It's] a much more diversified and ultimately more balanced platform."

Mr. Shoiry says the real value of the PB transaction is in the revenue potential. In other words, seeing how much the two companies together can generate in new cross-selling and cross-marketing opportunities.

Those revenue opportunities will hinge on the company's ability to get its employees to work together and share knowledge. Mr. Shoiry insists it's already happening.

But the real test will come in the months ahead as thousands of employees in different parts of the world who don't know one another are asked to collaborate.

"That's the toughest thing in the people business, because people are very protective of their information," Mr. Shoiry said. "You can't tell people to call each other. People have to want to do it."

That self-interest can manifest itself in other ways, as WSP found out.

The company was among the engineering firms embroiled in Quebec's police investigations into allegations of corruption in the province's construction industry, uncovering evidence on its own confirming that one of its executives participated in illegal political party financing.

The episode is now in the past and Quebec has cleared the company to bid on public contracts. Mr. Shoiry is reluctant to dwell on it beyond saying the company's internal controls have improved, even as he acknowledges they don't make it immune to another breach.

"When you have 32,000 people worldwide working in various countries – I mean, you can have the best systems in place, you can have the best training in place; you're still vulnerable."

The company's two largest investors certainly believe it has things under control. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board have helped WSP to finance its buying binge with private placements totalling about $860-million. They've bet big that the camera-shy Mr. Shoiry can keep both the acquisitions and organic growth coming.

Globally, the engineering industry seems determined to mimic the massive consolidation that occurred among accountant firms in the 1990s. And Mr. Shoiry seems determined that WSP will be a hunter, not the prey.

"People ask me, 'What's the end game.' There's not really right now an end game," he said. "We want to continue on exactly the same strategy we have."

Follow Nicolas Van Praet on Twitter: @NickVanPraetOpens in a new window

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