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Monday, October 20, 2003

At a typical small business in Canada, the payroll manager, human resources officer and recruitment head are usually the same person.

And that busy soul has yet another hat to wear: owner.

For entrepreneurs running restaurants, garages, export firms and a myriad of other concerns, the business of running a business can get terribly distracting.

As it happens, there are service organizations just waiting to take that tedium off entrepreneurs' hands. Prominent among them is Ceridian Canada Ltd., which says it handles the payroll chores for a staggering 17 per cent of working Canadians.

"We can do all those things that the small-business owner does not have time for," remarks Cory Ahlbaum, product manager for small business at Ceridian headquarters in Winnipeg. "It's a return on investment for them, pure and simple."

After setup costs, which include a thorough assessment of a company's needs, a business with 20 employees might pay about $100 a month for a suite of small-business services from Ceridian that includes payroll management, job applicant tracking, third-party remittances, an employee assistance program and group RRSP accounts.

While the cost isn't negligible, neither is the time a business owner must spend dealing with a heap of mandatory bean counting rather than core concerns.

"If you're running a business, you don't want to focus on all these other things," says Ahlbaum, whose firm has 33,000 small-business clients across the country and is the largest outsourcer for payroll.

"These companies don't have a dedicated person who can do the accounts payable. It's usually the owner that has to do it."

Ironically, Ahlbaum's company doesn't lack for large corporate clients that want the same conveniences. Even human resources departments, once the traditional clearing house for many of these workaday hassles, now prefer to spend time on more creative and strategic issues.

Obviously, any business supply store sells software that can handle aspects of these needs. But Ahlbaum stresses that his clients get a service that is specifically tailored to their needs and that comes with continuing support by phone or live e-mail communication.

"We're a solution provider; we're not a software shop," he comments.

Especially because of being spearheaded by Powerpay, the Ceridian payroll service (any of the small-business services can be ordered separately), this logic has enticed thousands of customers.

"We're quite busy and our secretary is quite busy," says Josee Santoni, co-founder of SMCS Inc. in Montreal, a provider of executive skills. "Doing payroll with this service takes a few minutes every two weeks. It's easier, it's faster and it costs almost nothing."

Getting set up with the system last March, she adds, "took five minutes."

Service providers such as Ceridian go so far as to make the case that handling payroll the usual way generates material costs as well as time.

There are the costs of purchasing software and its upgrades, for example. Statement forms and cheques have a cost. And, not least, there are penalties for remittance errors, both in the form of interest payments and possible damage to employee or supplier relationships.

Some of the services, offered by Ceridian in partnership with other companies, are made available to small-business customers at what are, in effect, bulk purchase rates. Employee assistance programs offering access to family counsellors and the like can be outsourced in many ways by small businesses but are typically costly as stand-alone services. With Ceridian, the service can simply be bundled with payroll management and other requirements.

Meanwhile, the underlying utility of harnessing information technology to business needs is highlighted each year at the Canadian Information Productivity Awards, where Powerpay won honours last year for innovation in e-commerce.

© The Globe and Mail