Building services group WSP is looking for international acquisitions, particularly in the USA, because the UK market is too small to sustain its growth.
Managing director Christopher Cole said WSP was willing to spend up to half its market capitalisation – £170m – to land the right company.

He said: "A major business cannot stay in the UK, it's got to play on a bigger stage." Cole said the aim was to have 50% of the group's business overseas.

He added: "Acquisitions are part of the culture at WSP. We've already done a lot." Cole made the comments as he announced WSP's full-year results to 31 December 2000. Group pre-tax profit surged 34% to £8.7m on turnover of £138m, up 38%.

Finance director Malcolm Paul said two US businesses acquired last year contributed 20% of the rise in turnover, with the rest coming from organic growth.

Cole said WSP's strategy had been to develop its international presence and this had led turnover outside the UK to rise from £5m five years ago to £37m last year.

He said: "Three years ago, we would have been described as British-based but now a third of our income is overseas and we're increasingly becoming a global player." Cole did not rule out making UK acquisitions but said these would be small and complement the group's existing services.

WSP has 18 offices worldwide and operates in 40 countries. A third of its 3000-strong workforce is based overseas.

Cole added that the US acquisitions made last year had enabled it to win high-rise contracts around the world.

Last July, WSP bought two high-rise specialists: Flack & Kurtz, a leading building services engineer; and Cantor Seinuk, a structural engineer specialising in the design of tall buildings.

Cole said: "Without that expertise, we wouldn't have stood a chance of winning those contracts." WSP's US businesses have already won major projects including The New York Times headquarters, San Jose airport terminal in California and Terminal 6 at Chicago's O'Hare airport.

Cole said: "These contracts have size, longevity and prestige. They put WSP on the map, whereas a few years ago we frankly weren't. We were established in London but weren't known elsewhere. Now we are."