Alison Sellar: Leading from the top at activpayroll Alison Sellar: Leading from the top at activpayroll

Alison Sellar: Leading from the top at activpayroll
09 Jan 2018

Alison Sellar, chief executive of payroll services provider, activpayroll, set up the company in 2001 when working at her parents’ accountancy firm, Grampian Business Bureau, in Aberdeen, Scotland. Payroll was administered for clients as a side business, but she spotted a niche to specialise in complex payroll for the local oil and gas industry.

Some 16 years later on, the organisation is still the only global payroll provider in Scotland, but it has now branched out into handling international mobility issues for sectors ranging from automotive and retail to financial services too. Here Alison talks to editor Cath Everett about the current challenges facing the international payroll industry, key trends and what it takes to run your own payroll business effectively.

Q. What key challenges do you believe global payroll organisations are facing?

There are several. Global payroll is very complex and legislation is changing all the time. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is going to be a massive thing.

It’s focusing on how much data you can hold and how long you can hold it for, so it’s a big challenge in terms of what it will mean and how people’s activities will be restricted. It may be necessary to rewrite processes and there’ll be the general impact of compliance so it’s going to be a significant change.

Another related issue is also data security and the risk of cyberattacks. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 80% of the content of request for proposals these days are about data storage and cybersecurity, and only about 20% is about traditional payroll. So it’s definitely becoming more important.

Q. What other tech-related industry trends are you seeing?
A lot of customers are still quite manual in how they do things, so I can see a lot more of them embracing things like time applications and analytics to provide visibility into their data and help them make better operational decisions.

Payroll is often just seen as people pressing buttons and while that does happen, it means the function is undervalued. But if you tie payroll data to timesheets and the profitability of jobs, it’s a whole different ballgame because it enables you to understand your business operations and its people costs much more effectively.

For example, a lot of companies don’t look at things like trends in overtime or sickness or how much time was spent on a particular job or project. But if you drill down further into what employees do and you assess the operational and overhead costs more - bearing in mind that your largest operational cost is people – you can start to generate a return on your assets.

HR stores some of that information, but it doesn’t store timesheets or actual payroll results on a realtime basis and so payroll has an important role to play here.

Now if you try to bring all of this information together in just one country, it’s not too difficult, but if you try to expand it out internationally, it can become very complex. So you need to bring in other departments to talk about how to generate efficiencies, which is where the opportunity lies for payroll to become more strategic.

Q. What does the future hold for activpayroll?

The company is growing pretty fast – in fact, we grew 27% last year and expect it to be more like 30% this year. We currently deliver payroll in 146 countries and have two UK offices - one in Aberdeen and one in Edinburgh - as well as one in the Isle of Man, one in Singapore and one in Florida in the US.

But we’ve also just opened a new office in Frankfurt, which will make it five since April. We’ve had a partner in Germany since 2003, but they’ve now been taken over and all of their employees have transferred over to us too. The aim is to acquire more partners around the world in order to invest in them so we’ll look at two or three more in regions like Europe and Asia-Pacific over the next 12 months.

On the technology side of things though, we are proud to have become the first PECI-certified Workday partner globally. And our technology roadmap includes lots of pioneering applications, which will be released later in the year and further automate and enhance our international service.

Q. What does an average day in the life of a payroll services provider’s CEO look like?

I travel quite a lot so I’m constantly at the airport. Meeting new clients is continual, but I also regularly spend time with key partners to talk about joint ventures and strategic planning. When I’m in the office though, I try to be an inspirational leader to my team, so I do town halls and aim to be active in career development. I’m quite a hands-on CEO as we’re privately owned. There’s no debt and we’re cash-positive with no external investors, which is unusual.

But the good thing is it means we don’t have people telling us what to do. When investors come in, they generally throw a sales team at it to no benefit. But there’s no sales team here apart from me, and we’re doing well so we don’t need one. We want to grow at our own pace rather than oversell and under-deliver and so we work with corporate customers that approach us rather than actively chasing them.

To me, the issue in having a sales function is that people often tell you what you want to hear, but they don’t know the complexities involved in global payroll and the dynamics of what works and what doesn’t. As a result, a lot of our customers come from people transitioning to us as a result of bad sales experiences.

Some of the team come from a Big Four payroll, tax and compliance background or are certified payroll professionals, so they’re experts and know what they’re talking about.

Q. How did you learn the necessary skills to take on such a diverse role?

It’s really important to have mentors that can help – in other words, people who have been there and done that, which is why I help to mentor people now. When you start a company, no one wants to talk about what can go wrong, but you do hit roadblocks and you do have to brush yourself off now and then.

So having a forum such as the Institute of Directors in which you can talk to people and find out that you’re not the only one really helps.

But I learned mainly by just throwing myself into big corporate offices and watching and listening in order to learn. At the same time, you also have to make sure you prepare properly and do your homework, and you always need to be ready to answer questions. But it’s also about demonstrating confidence.

Living off your wits comes with experience though. Over 20 years ago, my dad said ‘you can do it’ as he sent me off to speak to Aberdeen Asset Management – and I did do it because if you believe you can, you do. But I’m also very honest with people and will say ‘no, I can’t do that’ or ‘yes, but this is how we get there’. It’s about knowing your own limitations and acknowledging that you can’t be all things to all people. Just do your best and don’t get distracted.

Q. What do you believe is the secret to being a good leader?
It’s about leading from the top and being good at communicating at all levels. But it’s also about praising staff when they do a good job and sharing in the rewards. So when we’ve won awards, we make sure that the whole team is included and that back office staff aren’t forgotten as they all too often tend to be.

I’m also involved with various charities such as Maggies, where I sit on the board and, as a company, we’re quite into corporate social responsibility and putting something back into the community.

Another thing I’m quite passionate about is doing lectures at universities about what payroll is about. Most people don’t understand and it’s an unknown quantity so, if you put an advert in the paper for a project manager or developer, they won’t necessarily be interested. In the UK, where payroll diplomas are available, awareness is better than in Spain or France, which don’t have any certified courses. But it’s ultimately about how you present things - people like entrepreneurial businesses that provide career opportunities, and they’re always going to want to work for a company that’s working with the Formula One team.

Q. What do you look for when hiring?

We hire based on people’s potential and attitude. While they might not have all of the right qualifications, if they have the right attitude, you can get them there by coaching or training.

So it’s about demonstrating a can-do attitude, not moaning, being positive, helping other people, listening and being able to communicate clearly, especially in the global arena where you can easily get caught out.

As a result, it’s really important to do your homework on things like local cultural practices. Sometimes you might see an email and think that someone’s being rude, but you have to remember that English may not be their first language. So it’s important to be aware of other people’s customs and cultural attitudes because, at the end of the day, we’re all just striving to do a good job.

 

Alison Sellar, chief executive of payroll services provider, activpayroll, set up the company in 2001 when working at her parents’ accountancy firm, Grampian Business Bureau, in Aberdeen, Scotland. Payroll was administered for clients as a side business, but she spotted a niche to specialise in complex payroll for the local oil and gas industry.

Some 16 years later on, the organisation is still the only global payroll provider in Scotland, but it has now branched out into handling international mobility issues for sectors ranging from automotive and retail to financial services too. Here Alison talks to editor Cath Everett about the current challenges facing the international payroll industry, key trends and what it takes to run your own payroll business effectively.

Q. What key challenges do you believe global payroll organisations are facing?

There are several. Global payroll is very complex and legislation is changing all the time. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is going to be a massive thing.

It’s focusing on how much data you can hold and how long you can hold it for, so it’s a big challenge in terms of what it will mean and how people’s activities will be restricted. It may be necessary to rewrite processes and there’ll be the general impact of compliance so it’s going to be a significant change.

Another related issue is also data security and the risk of cyberattacks. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 80% of the content of request for proposals these days are about data storage and cybersecurity, and only about 20% is about traditional payroll. So it’s definitely becoming more important.

Q. What other tech-related industry trends are you seeing?
A lot of customers are still quite manual in how they do things, so I can see a lot more of them embracing things like time applications and analytics to provide visibility into their data and help them make better operational decisions.

Payroll is often just seen as people pressing buttons and while that does happen, it means the function is undervalued. But if you tie payroll data to timesheets and the profitability of jobs, it’s a whole different ballgame because it enables you to understand your business operations and its people costs much more effectively.

For example, a lot of companies don’t look at things like trends in overtime or sickness or how much time was spent on a particular job or project. But if you drill down further into what employees do and you assess the operational and overhead costs more - bearing in mind that your largest operational cost is people – you can start to generate a return on your assets.

HR stores some of that information, but it doesn’t store timesheets or actual payroll results on a realtime basis and so payroll has an important role to play here.

Now if you try to bring all of this information together in just one country, it’s not too difficult, but if you try to expand it out internationally, it can become very complex. So you need to bring in other departments to talk about how to generate efficiencies, which is where the opportunity lies for payroll to become more strategic.

Q. What does the future hold for activpayroll?

The company is growing pretty fast – in fact, we grew 27% last year and expect it to be more like 30% this year. We currently deliver payroll in 146 countries and have two UK offices - one in Aberdeen and one in Edinburgh - as well as one in the Isle of Man, one in Singapore and one in Florida in the US.

But we’ve also just opened a new office in Frankfurt, which will make it five since April. We’ve had a partner in Germany since 2003, but they’ve now been taken over and all of their employees have transferred over to us too. The aim is to acquire more partners around the world in order to invest in them so we’ll look at two or three more in regions like Europe and Asia-Pacific over the next 12 months.

On the technology side of things though, we are proud to have become the first PECI-certified Workday partner globally. And our technology roadmap includes lots of pioneering applications, which will be released later in the year and further automate and enhance our international service.

Q. What does an average day in the life of a payroll services provider’s CEO look like?

I travel quite a lot so I’m constantly at the airport. Meeting new clients is continual, but I also regularly spend time with key partners to talk about joint ventures and strategic planning. When I’m in the office though, I try to be an inspirational leader to my team, so I do town halls and aim to be active in career development. I’m quite a hands-on CEO as we’re privately owned. There’s no debt and we’re cash-positive with no external investors, which is unusual.

But the good thing is it means we don’t have people telling us what to do. When investors come in, they generally throw a sales team at it to no benefit. But there’s no sales team here apart from me, and we’re doing well so we don’t need one. We want to grow at our own pace rather than oversell and under-deliver and so we work with corporate customers that approach us rather than actively chasing them.

To me, the issue in having a sales function is that people often tell you what you want to hear, but they don’t know the complexities involved in global payroll and the dynamics of what works and what doesn’t. As a result, a lot of our customers come from people transitioning to us as a result of bad sales experiences.

Some of the team come from a Big Four payroll, tax and compliance background or are certified payroll professionals, so they’re experts and know what they’re talking about.

Q. How did you learn the necessary skills to take on such a diverse role?

It’s really important to have mentors that can help – in other words, people who have been there and done that, which is why I help to mentor people now. When you start a company, no one wants to talk about what can go wrong, but you do hit roadblocks and you do have to brush yourself off now and then.

So having a forum such as the Institute of Directors in which you can talk to people and find out that you’re not the only one really helps.

But I learned mainly by just throwing myself into big corporate offices and watching and listening in order to learn. At the same time, you also have to make sure you prepare properly and do your homework, and you always need to be ready to answer questions. But it’s also about demonstrating confidence.

Living off your wits comes with experience though. Over 20 years ago, my dad said ‘you can do it’ as he sent me off to speak to Aberdeen Asset Management – and I did do it because if you believe you can, you do. But I’m also very honest with people and will say ‘no, I can’t do that’ or ‘yes, but this is how we get there’. It’s about knowing your own limitations and acknowledging that you can’t be all things to all people. Just do your best and don’t get distracted.

Q. What do you believe is the secret to being a good leader?
It’s about leading from the top and being good at communicating at all levels. But it’s also about praising staff when they do a good job and sharing in the rewards. So when we’ve won awards, we make sure that the whole team is included and that back office staff aren’t forgotten as they all too often tend to be.

I’m also involved with various charities such as Maggies, where I sit on the board and, as a company, we’re quite into corporate social responsibility and putting something back into the community.

Another thing I’m quite passionate about is doing lectures at universities about what payroll is about. Most people don’t understand and it’s an unknown quantity so, if you put an advert in the paper for a project manager or developer, they won’t necessarily be interested. In the UK, where payroll diplomas are available, awareness is better than in Spain or France, which don’t have any certified courses. But it’s ultimately about how you present things - people like entrepreneurial businesses that provide career opportunities, and they’re always going to want to work for a company that’s working with the Formula One team.

Q. What do you look for when hiring?

We hire based on people’s potential and attitude. While they might not have all of the right qualifications, if they have the right attitude, you can get them there by coaching or training.

So it’s about demonstrating a can-do attitude, not moaning, being positive, helping other people, listening and being able to communicate clearly, especially in the global arena where you can easily get caught out.

As a result, it’s really important to do your homework on things like local cultural practices. Sometimes you might see an email and think that someone’s being rude, but you have to remember that English may not be their first language. So it’s important to be aware of other people’s customs and cultural attitudes because, at the end of the day, we’re all just striving to do a good job.