Growth and profitability appear to have dropped as top concerns in an annual survey of 214 global engineering CEOs, but the chiefs pushed mergers and acquisitions up the priority list in 2014, even as they debated the strategy's merits on Oct. 16 in New York City.

At the conference held by industry broker and management firm EFCG, the CEOs said leadership succession and recruitment also were bigger priorities this year and speculated on project impacts as oil prices continue to slide.

SNC-Lavalin CEO Robert Card, noting his firm's new $2-billion takeover of U.K. contractor Kentz, said, "To get really good at delivering huge projects, you can't afford to do that unless you have the scale." He added, "You'll be ceilinged out unless you figure out how to break through, and that takes a whole new risk profile and balance sheet." Atkins CEO Uwe Krueger said technology investment "requires a certain size."

But others noted downsides. "If size equaled quality, we'd all have bought our suits at Wal-Mart," said CH2M Hill Chairman and CEO Jacqueline Hinman, adding that the firm is scaling back,"looking for higher return and a more nimble structure."

CDM Smith CEO Stephen Hickox said, "You can't be everything to everyone in the world. Few clients select you based on your number of employees."

WorleyParsons CEO Andrew Wood said his firm crossed the $10-billion revenue mark this year, noting that being large and "providing good service are not mutually exclusive." Wood and Krueger said project size and financial complexity still mandate more joint-venturing.

Parsons Corp. CEO Charles Harrington was enthusiastic on the firm's 2015 prospects but, like his peers, noted the need to watch how changing oil prices could impact owner capital investment. "This is one of the least inspiring global markets in a long time," said Card.