Chris Cole, chief executive of WSP, has said he would “not count out” making a “transformational” acquisition, amid speculation that the consultancy sector will go through a period of consolidation this year

Speaking after the company posted a 4% drop in turnover to £723m in 2009, Cole refused to say whether it was more likely to happen in the UK or abroad but said deals would materialise in the second half of 2010, once the market stabilised.

He said: “We’ve done deals in the £10m to £20m bracket but I wouldn’t count out a transformational deal. That kind of deal could be made by any consultant – although we’re not in the market to be acquired.”

Net debt at WSP grew from £56.2m to £59.6m, but the company has a debt facility of £150m. Cole said: “I suppose people are wondering when we’re going to start spending it.”

His comments come as many in the industry believe there will be widespread consolidation this year with US giants Jacobs and Aecom understood to be on the hunt for deals in the UK.

I suppose people are wondering when we’re going to start spending

Chris Cole

Pre-tax profit at WSP fell from £52.1m to £25.4m, a figure that was made worse by a £13.1m hit on projects for clients in Dubai, which is equal to its total outstanding debt in the emirate. Cole added: “We won’t give up on chasing the debts but as a plc we have to draw a line under it.”

There was no indication which clients owe it cash but it is understood that half the debt relates to the Jumeira Gardens City project for developer Meeras. The bulk of the remainder is for work carried out for troubled client Sama Dubai, which is developing the Salam resort project in Bahrain, and for Dubai Properties’ Culture Village.

WSP has cut its staff in Dubai in half to 450 and Cole said it now accounted for 20% of its turnover in the Gulf, as opposed to 80% in the middle of 2008.

Global staff numbers fell from 10,000 to 9,000 in 2009.