WSP hits the big time and moves to the GCC

Freedom Tower designer WSP is the new kid on the block of international consultants in Dubai. Having acquired local outfit PHB in April, the company has already boosted staff numbers to 170 and aims to double turnover in eighteen months. Chief executive, Christopher Cole, explains why the company has decided to set out its stall in boom town Dubai.

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  October 22, 2005

|~|92vis200.gif|~|Christopher Cole: “We are leading high-rise designers and managers, so we are well-placed to advise on tall buildings here [in the GCC].”|~|How does WSP compare in size to the other international consultants operating in the Middle East?

As a business we are among the top three in the UK, the top six in Europe and the top 20 in the world.

We employ nearly 6000 people worldwide. We carry out work in the area of property, transportation and infrastructure, as well as environmental — so these are our three
main strings.

We currently have a hugely- regarded presence in the UK, similarly in Europe and Scandanavia, South Africa and Asia — so there was a gap on the map, namely the Middle East.

What sort of track record does the company have in the region?

I originally came here more than 20 years ago to look after the Al Ghurair Centre in Deira, so as a group we have been here in a low-key way for some years but we weren’t making
real progress.

We also left for nearly ten years between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties, which wasn’t the best idea, so we came back in the late 1990s to do the Mirage Hotel; and I came out last year to see how we could present ourselves in
a much more meaningful way, knowing that Dubai would be the focal point of the other territories. That led us to identify PHB as an acquisition opportunity.

What benefits has the merger brought to the enlarged organisation?

They are a company that was well known in the market, but equally, people looked upon them as not being well enough resourced to take on the larger jobs.

So we came along to tap into their client base and that
suddenly presented a whole new business, as we support
it financially.

We also bring huge knowledge. We are the designers of the Freedom Tower in New York, which is the world’s tallest building, so we are pretty well-placed to advise on tall buildings here as well.

Do you think consultants are valued as they should be in the procurement chain?

I think that is a good question and I think the answer is probably ‘no’, but it is up to us to change that and I don’t
think we are materially undervalued either.

But I do think that some procurement routes in this market do not position the consultant where I think the consultant should be positioned.

What type of projects will WSP be chasing in the UAE and the wider GCC region?

We will be looking at major projects where clients believe they need an international consultant on board and one that has a good CV. We are leading high-rise designers and we are certainly the UK’s most experienced retail consultants.

We lead on both of those in terms of being a designer and manager. We are also doing an incredible amount of work in the healthcare sector and we are designing some of the largest hotels in the world.

We are already working on Mall of the Emirates and Festival City and with City of Arabia and Motor City coming up, these are projects that will help put us on the map further.
I also think big jobs breed big jobs, and we have a stable of
major projects.

Do you think the level of development we are currently witnessing is sustainable?

I don’t know, but it has sustained itself to date, so why shouldn’t it keep going? I ask the question all the time and I get answers that vary from five years to ten years. We don’t even know which way the dollar will move, so if we can’t even get currency movements right and we can’t get the oil price forecast right, who knows?

How do you eat into the market share of the other big consultants operating here?

The market is very large, and as long as we do what we do
well, there will be plenty of room for us here in the
Middle East.

Outside of Dubai, we are currently working in Doha on the new library and we are also doing the new equestrian centre. We are about to do so some work in Abu Dhabi as well.
Our current turnover in the Middle East is about
US $8.8 million (AED32.5 million) and we will double that in the next eighteen months.||**||

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