With more than half its 16 million people living below flood levels, the Netherlands has become expert in taming coasts and rivers. Dutch engineer Royal HaskoningDHV is exploiting that expertise globally—particularly in emerging economies—as a key edge in a world of intensifying design competition.

Formed by the 2012 merger of Royal Haskoning Group and DHV Group to propel that growth, the Amersfoort-based company now has more than 7,000 worldwide staff who generated net sales of $713 million last year—just over half overseas in some 100 offices in 35 countries. Key hubs in the U.K. and South Africa employ about 1,600 staffers.

“The main result of the merger was that we are far more able to go for the big projects available in the world,” says Chairman Erik Oostwegel, 49, a Royal Haskoning former chief who took over the enlarged firm in 2014. “There is a tendency with all clients to go for service providers [that] can offer an integrated approach.”

The firm has trebled the number of jobs with fees in the $11-million range since the merger, he adds. The merged firm is still small by global standards, concedes Oostwegel. “I could imagine being twice our current size,” he says. HaskoningDHV now is larger in Holland than its leading Amsterdam-based rival, ARCADIS N.V., but that firm has become a 28,000-employee global behemoth through key acquisitions.

ARCADIS, which is publicly held and traded on Euronext Amsterdam, also leads in profitability. Under shareholder pressure for returns, the designer reported a 10.1% operating margin last year and aims to exceed 11% in 2016. HaskoningDHV reported a 2.6% margin last year and is shooting for as much as an 8% return by 2018.

Several years of shrinking revenue and profits already pushed Grontmij, a 6,000-person Dutch competitor, to agree to an estimated $400-million buyout offer in June from Swedish design firm Sweco AB.

Oostwegel recalls Haskoning receiving unwelcome attention from “American companies who wanted to buy a company in Europe, but we didn’t feel like it,” he says. Unencumbered by quarterly shareholder demands, the executive says “it’s ... up to us to have control of our own future and focus more on where we can add value and the services we are globally known for.”

The company promotes its design expertise in eight market sectors—including buildings, industrial, energy and aviation— but water-related projects ripple through its order book. In the international design-firm market, “The Dutch ... have an edge in terms of water management and flood protection,” says Naren Bhojaran, HaskoningDHV business-unit director for rivers, deltas and coasts.

Holland-based water management fostered the creation of HaskoningDHV’s predecessor companies, going back to the 19th century. They diversified in different directions domestically but linked in 1951, along with other Dutch firms, to export local expertise through a non-profit foundation, Netherlands Engineering Consultants (NEDECO), which still operates.

Both companies grew substan-tially after 1980 through foreign acquisitions. Haskoning’s U.K. business took off from a 1994 ac- quisition in England, now a key
 hub for the combined firm’s
 coastal engineering unit. DHV grew in South Africa, with a 600-person design-firm purchase in 2005.

Despite these acquisitions, both firms remained small players on the global scene and needed to react to “consolidation [that] was taking place,” says Vic Prins, now director of HaskoningDHV’s aviation business unit. Oostwegel remembers hatching merger plans with his then-DHV counterpart, Bertrand van Ee, over lunch in spring 2011. Both firms had been soul-searching over whether to continue to provide a wide range of services or focus on fewer niche markets, Oostwegel adds.

With the chiefs agreeing to broad merger terms, the firms made the detailed arrangements with no external financial or legal advice and in total secrecy, he adds. The companies were valued identically, and no cash changed hands, Oostwegel notes.

When the merger was announced in February 2012, “it was a total surprise,” he says. The transaction was in effect by July.

Among those kept in the dark was executive board member Anton van der Sanden. “I got a call from the board telling me that we were merged,” says the executive, now group director in charge of infrastructure.