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URS takes aim for British buy

AMERICAN CONSULTING giant URS Corporation is looking to buy a major British consultant to expand its presence in the UK and act as a springboard to the rest of Europe.

Executive vice president and chief financial officer Kent Ainsworth is in Europe this week to identify likely partners for a deal that could be worth between £6M and £12M. He expects to return to the UK in a few months and hopes to conclude a deal next year.

No British shopping list has been drawn up yet, although firms targeted initially will be in the 500-1,000 staff range. NCE's Consultants File 1997 shows 10 companies fitting this bill, ranging from Pell Frischmann at 500 to Mouchel at 951.

But Ainsworth said he would also consider firms with as few as 250 staff or up to 1,500 staff. This increases the list to about 50.

'At this point our sights are set on a company profile of 500 to 600 employees - frankly it is less risky to buy one that size,' said Ainsworth, explaining that smaller firms are more dependent on two or three key managers who could leave.

URS' work spans civils, industrial and building schemes and it has 6,100 staff in 150 offices worldwide. The company has a long tradition of major acquisitions. In 1996 it bought airport and long-span bridge designer Greiner and recently completed the takeover of Woodward-Clyde which had 2,600 staff. The group is the fifth largest engineering design firm in the US.

URS' sole UK office is a small, 10 person, environmental base in Windsor. The firm is keen to expand within the UK and Europe and to generate a range of work and geographical spread. It ideally seeks a firm with a 60:40 split between the UK and the rest of Europe.

Of the 10 companies in the 500 to 1,000 range, the most attractive to URS would seem to be Allott & Lomax, Posford Duvivier, Thorburn Colquhoun and Oscar Faber which had 70%-80% of their workload in the UK according to last year's NCE Consultants File. Another possible is Mouchel - 951 staff and 40% of work overseas.

Pell Frischmann and Parkman would also appear to be potential targets, both having between 10% to15% of work overseas.

Other firms are perhaps less attractive. WSP's recent merger with Graham probably puts the joint firm out of the range. Virtually all of Knight Piesold's work is overseas, while 58% of High Point's was abroad according to the 1997 Consultants File. And very little of Owen Williams' work was carried out overseas according to last year's figures.

Three others in ideal target range are not traditional civils consultants: Transport Research Laboratory; Penspen, a firm of oil and gas engineers and managers, and Eutech, where only 50 of the 682 staff were in civil and structural engineering.

Ainsworth accepts that finding the right partner is not easy. His recent trawl through 10 Chicago-based firms over a three year period came to nothing. URS eventually gained a presence in the city by merging regional offices of other acquisitions.

But consultants need not panic. 'We aren't hostile raiders - there has to be a willing seller,' Ainsworth stressed. 'The whole left hand side of the balance sheet - the staff - goes home every night and we want them to come back. It's a people business.'

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