Interview: Alison Sellar, Activpayroll founder

EVERY month, the salaries of more than 100,000 people around the world land in the bank on time thanks to Activpayroll, allowing them to pay the bills, make the mortgage and put food on the table. It’s a weighty responsibility that company founder Alison Sellar is naturally bound to take seriously.

Activpayroll CEO, Alison Sellar. Picture: Contributed

“Yeah, we do think about that, and we also think about the customers,” she says. “People are a company’s biggest asset, so we have got to get it right. And everyone needs paid – it is a critical function.”

Which is why Sellar freely admits that during the past month alone, Activpayroll has turned away 35 potential new clients. While most chief executives would wince at the thought of knocking back custom, this year’s Female Business Leader – as she was named at the Scottish Business Awards earlier this month – says the risks of over-stretching are too great.

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“In this market you can’t afford to over-promise and under-deliver,” Sellar says. “If we don’t get it absolutely right, our reputation will be destroyed.”

But it’s not as if this has thrown the brakes on growth at Activpayroll, which has been operating out of its headquarters in Aberdeen since 2001.

According to latest accounts filed with Companies House, the firm generated sales of £8.5 million during the year to 31 March, up from £7.2m previously. Pre-tax profits powered ahead at a far stronger pace, trebling to more than £1.7m.

Sellar says growth has continued in the current financial year, but declines to give further details as the company is privately-owned by her and three business partners. They include her husband Euan Sellar – who is Activpayroll’s global operations director – business services director Sian Odgers and global tax director Graham McKechnie.

Born and raised in Aberdeen, Sellar began working in her mum and dad’s accountancy business at the age of 13, where she cleaned and sorted mail. It was one of several jobs she had while growing up, which she says gave her a “good understanding of the value of money”.

She joined her parents’ business full-time after studying accountancy at Aberdeen College, working her way up from office junior to become a partner in mid-1999.

It was at this point that things started to seriously accelerate in her life. Two days after being made partner, she gave birth to her second child, daughter Danielle. Meanwhile, the firm was moving office, and Sellar had only recently landed its first major payroll customer, a multi-national offshore drilling contractor who remains a client of Activpayroll to this day.

She was back at work just a week after the birth of Danielle: “It was a big and important new piece of work, and it was quite complex work, so you want to do your best.”

Like many accountants, her parents, Norma and Allan, did payroll but didn’t specialise in it. Sellar spied an opportunity. With the support of her folks, she took the payroll division’s 25 clients, along with three members of staff, and set up on her own in 2001.

Focused from the outset on the oil and gas sector, the company naturally began extending its reach overseas as clients on its doorstep in Aberdeen requested payroll services for operations elsewhere around the world.

Serious international expansion took hold in 2005 when Activpayroll was appointed by one of the world’s leading investment banks to handle payroll and tax compliance for staff in 60 countries. The company opened its first overseas office in Australia that same year on the back of another contract with a different client.

Activpayroll now employs 128 people – up from 76 a year ago – servicing roughly 1,000 clients in more than 120 countries around the world. Its customers typically employ between 5,000 and 7,500 people and hail from a wide variety of sectors other than the offshore industry, which today accounts for a little less than one-third of revenues.

“Oil and gas is a complex market, so other companies realise that if we can handle that, we won’t have any problem with sectors that are more straight-forward,” Sellar says.

Among its racier clients is a Formula One team which, like all of Activpayroll’s customers, cannot be named for reasons of confidentiality. However, they are the team’s third-largest supplier, handling pay packets and tax compliance for about 2,500 people.

“We have got a lot of household names on our books that we unfortunately can’t talk about,” she says.

The biggest impediment to the company’s growth – and the main reason why it turns clients away – is the inability to hire and train up staff quickly enough. Sellar hopes to at least partially alleviate this problem through the launch earlier this year of Scotland’s first in-house payroll training academy.

The company now has nine staff in Singapore, where it opened in 2013, and an office in Edinburgh that recently took on additional floor space for the fourth time since opening. During the past year it has also expanded into Canada, Paris and Stavanger through partnerships with local agents.

Sellar sees plenty of other opportunities as more and more firms look to outsource payroll activities in an effort to reduce costs while ensuring compliance with complex and varied taxation regimes. A launch is planned in Dubai in January, and other markets are also under scrutiny.

“The biggest challenge is people,” she says. “You can’t hire people in who have experience in global payroll, because they don’t exist. They might have experience in UK payroll, or Australian or French payroll, or wherever else, but they don’t have experience in all of them.”

30 SECOND CV

Born: Aberdeen, 1970.

Education: Aberdeen Grammar; Aberdeen College.

Ambition at school: To be a ski instructor.

Can’t live without: My family.

Kindle or book: Kindle – I travel so much, it is just easier.

Favourite city: Rome.

Preferred mode of transport: My bike.

What car do you drive: A Mercedes.

What makes you angry: I get annoyed with people who are not honest.

What inspires you: Coming to work and knowing that I have got a great team around me.