ACS's takeover of Hochtief maintained the Spanish firm's 30-year growth pattern of ever-larger acquisitions. ACS became a major player with the 2003 purchase of Grupo Dragados, Madrid, one of Spain's most prominent global contractors.

That deal was trumped by the German takeover. Along with its U.S. subsidiaries, Hochtief opened the door to Asia with its Australia-based subsidiary Leighton Holdings, St. Leonards, New South Wales.

Since Fernández joined in 1987, he says his record in integrating acquisitions into ACS marked him as a potential leader for Hochtief. Now based in Essen, he finds his modest knowledge of German poses no problem. "This is a global business … experience doesn't have nationality," he says, speaking in English.

With the first anniversary of Fernández's appointment as CEO now weeks away, "it seems he's delivered on what he said he would," says Hingorani. What the new strategy will do for Hochtief's fortunes, he adds, remains to be seen.