Activpayroll founder looks to build on global expansion

It has worked with companies including travel search engine Skyscanner as well as defence, aerospace and security specialist BAE Systems.

'I don't see Brexit being a massive challenge for us,' says Activpayroll founder and chief executive Alison Sellar. Picture: Ian Rutherford

And suitably, Aberdeen’s Activpayroll has considerable operations overseas, present in nearly 150 countries, but is looking to become less of an under-the-radar presence, according to chief executive Alison Sellar.

She founded the company in 2001 after working for her parents’ Grampian Business Bureau and, when looking to grow its payroll department, launched it as a separate entity. The firm has just moved into new offices in Edinburgh, trebling its growth capacity and able to accommodate 80 staff. Overall headcount numbers about 160 and customers exceed 1,000.

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The business covers payroll, expatriate tax and HR, and is the only Scottish global payroll company, Sellar notes.

“People are your biggest asset – but also your biggest operational cost,” she states. In fact, the global payroll outsourcing services market is expected to be worth more than $21 billion by 2021, from £16bn last year, market research specialist Technavio found.

Activpayroll’s original focus was the oil and gas sector, growing now to the likes of retail and financial services, with The Scottish Salmon Company and BlackRock on its books, as well as pharmaceutical, manufacturing and tech. Last year it won the global payroll contract for Scottish Enterprise.

While many high-profile clients cannot be disclosed, Sellar says they include a Formula 1 team, governments and cyber security companies.

“We’re continually investing in IT infrastructure and data security because it’s such a big area these days,” she says, noting the General Data Protection Regulation that comes into effect next year.

Activpayroll’s first overseas office opened in 2005 in Australia, which the firm admits highlighted the struggles of being a global business and navigating unique local environments. However, global expansion is now high on the agenda, albeit at a moderate pace. “You can’t just grow too quickly, because if you don’t deliver your service, people won’t get paid,” Sellar stresses.

The firm now has operations in various European cities, the US, Canada, Dubai and Singapore, as well as Australia, with a couple of other countries “on the horizon” for later this year and into 2018. These are likely to be in Europe and the Asia-Pacific (Asia-Pac) region as it looks to acquire local partners in key markets. Closer to home, the aim in Edinburgh is to target companies “going international” or those with an international presence coming into the city.

And while the UK’s departure from the EU looks unlikely to simplify overseas operations, Sellar emphasises the benefits of being in several European cities, recently consolidating its presence in Germany. “I don’t see [Brexit] being a massive challenge for us,” she says, although she believes it might affect social security planning for clients’ expat staff.

Technology has also accelerated considerably since Activpayroll started, so is she concerned about new players? “There are quite a lot of competitors coming in from Asia-Pac or the US trying to get into the global payroll marketspace – but they’re behind in terms of knowing what works and what doesn’t work.”

Activpayroll has grown by word of mouth and has no sales team, Sellar adds. Turnover in the year to 31 March reached £13.1 million, up from £10.5m in the previous year, while pre-tax profit on ordinary activities increased to £3.8m from £2.6m. The business is expected to grow by 35-50 per cent in the current financial year.

She also says the privately funded firm is “very cash-positive and growing year on year… we can continue to invest back into the business so we’re focused on that”.

The aim now is to keep expanding in infrastructure “and everything that we’ve built so far and introduce new products”.

Sellar won Female Business Leader of the Year at the Scottish Business Awards in 2015 but stresses that her career has entailed hard graft, extending to being a GlobalScot Trade Mission Ambassador and gruelling-sounding challenges such as a 450-kilometre charity cycle across Vietnam.

“I never really get much time to do nothing – there’s always something going on,” she laughs. “I’ve always worked hard, and it’s been in my blood to work hard.”


Born: 1970, Aberdeen. My dad is an avid Aberdeen football fan and I was born the day before the Dons won the Scottish Cup

Education: Aberdeen Grammar School, then college to study accounting

First job: Voluntary work

Ambition while at school: I wanted to be a physiotherapist – how did I land into payroll?

What car do you drive? Mercedes GLA

Favourite mode of transport: Not so much favourite but necessity to fly

Music: Anything from the seventies and eighties

Kindle or book? Kindle

Reading material: Crime thrillers

Can’t live without: My family

What makes you angry? Negativity

What inspires you? The amazing work charities do

Favourite place: Italy, in particular Rome