01 June 2024

Brian Sparling ChFCIPPdip, global payroll director, World Fuel Services, shares his experience of ‘falling’ into the wonderful world of payroll

People who know me know how passionate I am about all things payroll. When discussing my career, the question that’s always asked is, “How did you get into payroll?”

For most people working in payroll this is the million-dollar question, and for around 99.9% of people the answer would probably be that they fell into it. While this may be true, everyone working in payroll has chosen to remain there.

At school, I dreamt of a career in law, probably inspired by LA Law rather than Rumpole of the Bailey (for those younger than me – probably most readers – ask your parents / grandparents if you don’t get my cultural references). Academically, my strong point was maths, getting good grades throughout school. University was next for me, with a choice of several different options for a degree in maths or law – some part of me still hankered after the glory of Californian law practice!

I chose to study law and enjoyed the course and found the best part of it was Revenue and Tax Law, a course intrinsically linked with my love of numbers. I graduated four years later in 1995, with a degree and ready to start practising in whatever field of law would have me in Scotland – the move to sunnier climes could wait. Sadly, at this time, obtaining a two-year traineeship to complete my qualifications was more difficult than I had thought. I needed to do something to start paying back my student debts, so was offered a position at a local property development business.


Developing new skills

I became a jack of all trades, dealing with administrative items, working with planning authorities and liaising with housebuilding businesses until the fateful day occurred and the person who ‘did the wages’ left, and I was asked, “Could you just take over the wages until we get someone new in?” That new person never started, and I found myself really enjoying the challenges which running the payroll for a business brought.

Sadly, redundancy loomed, and I found myself in my first full-time job solely in payroll as payroll assistant for the National Galleries of Scotland. I don’t think that I will ever work again in such beautiful surroundings as the Dean Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. I began to learn so much about payroll from my manager and through getting involved in Local Government Pension Scheme rules and building new processes and procedures.

I moved onto a payroll administrator role at BSkyB, which gave me the opportunity to work on much larger and more complex payrolls and begin to learn new skills, working on shadow payrolls and processing payrolls in China, Russia and other global locations. The payroll manager at BSkyB was keen to ensure anyone working in the team could pursue opportunities for payroll qualifications and it was at this time that I became involved with the CIPP or, as it was then, the IPPM (Institute of Payroll and Pensions Management). I studied for the Diploma in Payroll Management over three years and was delighted to obtain a pass. I began to realise how important it was to feel supported, not only internally, but by an external body keen to showcase and highlight the great work payroll professionals carry out. I really began to embrace the thought of payroll as a career and the potential opportunities I could have. Any thoughts of practising law in a fast-paced glamourous LA practice were now beginning to fade.

I moved to a manufacturing business for two years, gaining supervisory experience, building on the learning from the Diploma on running a team as well as new systems implementation. This was a totally different environment from where I had worked in the past and it was where I found myself subject to my most hated phrase in payroll (or anywhere else) … “Oh, we’ve always done it that way!”


Taking the lead

I then rejoined BSkyB in a more senior role running a part of an operational payroll team responsible for around 20,000 employees. I became more involved with HM Revenue and Customs and other payroll stakeholder agencies and began to see how the work done by payroll impacts on a wider scale and can help drive the economies of entire countries.

I was appointed as payroll manager at BSkyB, leading the entire team and becoming primarily responsible for the project to outsource the payroll processing to a third-party provider. This was a difficult project to lead, mainly down to the eventual impact on the payroll team as, unfortunately, with the change in model, most of the payroll jobs were lost. This was a time when I recognised the importance of working with a great team, and just how professional and dedicated payroll people can be, as I don’t think the project would have been completed without the team in place at the time. I still work with several great people from this time and treasure the relationships I have been able to build and maintain.

The next great opportunity for me involved a change in geography as it meant a move to north-west London from Scotland and a chance to be payroll manager at JD Wetherspoon. Again, this meant new things for me, and running a weekly payroll of up to 36,000 people presented its own, specific challenges. This was again with a great team, so things never seemed as bad as they could be – and I will say that being paid to drink beer is a career highlight!


Time for change

My personal circumstances changed; our twin boys were born during our time in north-west London and somewhere in my heart a desire for purple heather and mist-covered hills had replaced the Californian beaches. A move back to Scotland ensued with a role at TSB Bank, which was just about to fully separate from Lloyds Bank after the financial crisis.

This was a chance to start the payroll process from scratch and although initially the payroll was outsourced to a third-party provider, I launched a project to in-house the payroll and then successfully led the project to in-house the payroll process, build a new team from scratch and transfer the knowledge from the outsourcer in nine short months.

TSB was then bought by a Spanish banking business and so needed a new human resource and payroll system, as we were still using one provided by Lloyds Bank under the TSA (transitional services agreement). This gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time in Spain working with our colleagues to design and build a new system.

In 2018, I was offered the chance to join Dayforce – Ceridian at the time – as it was re-entering the UK market with a new human capital management system after the previous sale of their European business. I was to lead the managed services function, which was responsible for the go-live for the first UK payroll in May 2018. In the past six years, the entire business has grown exponentially in Europe and globally with more than 6,300 customers worldwide.

I had some fantastic opportunities and experiences at Dayforce,,gaining involvement in many system implementation projects, sales and prospect demos, working with operational and customer success teams, working alongside product development teams and many leadership opportunities. I have been able to travel in this role, working globally with customers and colleagues in a variety of locations including Hungary, Germany, Australia, New York, Las Vegas and Orlando.

I really hope that this whistle-stop tour through my personal payroll career journey has shown some of the amazing opportunities that can be had if you choose to work in payroll and embrace everything the payroll world has to offer.


Words of advice

If I was to give anyone contemplating a career in payroll some of my thoughts, the few things that I would say to them are:

l believe that payroll is a career, we are gaining more and more recognition for the work we do and the importance of our profession. The days of a chief payroll officer at the C-suite table will shortly be with us

l know the importance of the work we do! We empower people to live their lives, provide a home and food for families, etc. Being named as ‘key workers’ throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and our amazing ability to work with an ever-changing minefield of rules and regulations showed our true worth to countries across the globe

l don’t ever think that payroll just means processing end-to-end payroll – there’s a wide range of job types and skills needed to work in payroll. We need auditors, programmers, business analysts, tax and compliance experts, implementation consultants and training officers – as artificial intelligence and machine learning start to gain more importance in payroll processes, we will all need to embrace new technologies and different ways of working. I have been involved in projects to outsource, in-house and implement payrolls and can safely say that two days are never the same

l if you want it, the opportunity for global travel exists within the payroll world. I’ve travelled to some fantastic places with work – even though I do often have to remind friends and families that it is work! Get involved in global payroll implementations if you really want to see the world and ensure you have enough room in your passport for all the stamps you will need. 


This article feautured in the June 2024 issue of Professional.