ASCENDER: putting trust into payroll

Everyone likes to get paid, but there’s more to Payroll than meets the eye. Jonathan Jackson speaks with Ascender CEO Marjukka Mäki-Hokkonen about the intricacies of payroll management.

Payroll is about people. Payroll allows people to put food on the table, fund their children’s education and be confident that they can pay their bills or mortgages. It is not just about putting money into an employee’s bank account.

At its very heart Payroll is about trust.

Several leading businesses, including convenience store chains, quick service restaurant brands and restaurants run by celebrity chefs, have been in the recent news for underpaying their staff consistently over a period of time. Many of these infringements may not have been deliberate but, in all cases, they resulted in significant erosion of the brand’s reputation and trust amongst its employees and customers.

So how does a business prevent breakdowns in trust?

Enter Ascender. Ascender is an Australian company with over 800 employees, assisting businesses in 35 countries across the Asia Pacific region and bringing confidence and trust to the Payroll process.

This relatively little known, but long-established company (with its roots in businesses formerly known as Talent2 and NGA HR) is a service provider of choice for CFOs and HR Directors across the Asia Pacific region. That is because Ascender’s highly experienced team of Payroll professionals understand that behind every Payroll is not just a process and a procedure, but a person. Ascender connects businesses with their employees through their Payroll and HR solutions by bringing together its technology solutions and deep payroll expertise.

As one of the leading Payroll service providers in Asia Pacific,  Ascender’s client base boasts of some iconic Australian and multinational companies, along with many universities,

government agencies and hundreds of small and medium sized enterprises.

“We get to work with some incredible organisations and people. Many of our customers are hugely recognised brands, including many global multi- nationals. We are an extension of their organisation,” Ascender CEO Marjukka Maki-Hokkonen says.

Alongside Payroll related services, which are at the core of its solution portfolio, Ascender also offers a full suite of services around Human Capital Management, Talent Management, and Workforce Management encompassing both proprietary and partner IP.

Whilst Payroll and HR software solutions underpin Ascender’s service delivery, “people first” has always been their core principle and the company places a great deal of emphasis on building the trust of their employees and customers through continuing feedback and refinement across those services.


Ascender’s reach extended in January last year (2017) when it announced the acquisition of the Australia and New Zealand business of NGA Human Resources, one of Australia’s leading HR and Payroll Technology and Services organisations.

“We led that integration extremely swiftly without any negative impact to the customer base and we’ve continued to see good momentum on the new business front immediately after the announcement of the acquisition,” says Marjukka.

“We have received a lot of positive feedback around the integration process from our customers as well as market watchers and influencers.”

The acquisition turned Ascender into the market leader in HR & Payroll software and services in ANZ and the Asia Pacific region, servicing over 3,000 clients and over 1.3 million employees.

“In our vision statement we are trusted with the prosperity of millions of employees. This really highlights how critical our work is. Whatever the size or function of the organisation, their people expect to be paid and they trust us to make that happen accurately, compliantly and on-time, so that their employees can pay their mortgages and send their children to school.”

Marjukka takes this vision statement personally. She arrived in Australia five years ago to grow and develop NGA Human Resources. She did that successfully before the acquisition, and the mission still continues to be the same albeit with a much bigger mandate.

“A lot of our success comes down to the ethos, culture and the joy of working and servicing those customers. Also, it is being proud of what the company stands for and what we can do to help other businesses. It is incredibly satisfying to know that we are trusted to deliver such important services.”


What Ascender does is enable its customers to focus on their core business, whilst it takes care of the expertise surrounding Payroll and HR services.

According to Marjukka, this includes process simplification, standardisation and adopting industry best practices vis-à- vis Payroll operations. It also includes deploying industry leading platforms to enhance functionality and improve user experience.

Ascender partners with businesses to take the risk out of Payroll and to ensure they adhere to the sometimes insurmountable number of legislative changes that are easy to forget or inadvertently ignore.

One of the services that Ascender provides is a monthly alert bulletin that details all the recent legal changes and updates relating to Payroll. This can include everything from changes to payment and wages for special non-working days to topics as broad as corporate governance.

That is a lot for any business to have to keep up with. Ascender takes this pressure away from businesses, and works closely with companies to help them understand their obligations along with any changes that are relevant to them.

For example, in Australia, any business with 20 or more employees should be currently reviewing their Payroll capabilities and platform to ensure they will comply with the new Australian Tax Office reporting requirements, known as Single Touch Payroll, marked to take effect in July 2018.

Single Touch Payroll is a change in the way the Australian Government requires employers to report Payroll information to the Australian Taxation Office. In its simplest form, the Annual

Payment Summary and associated electronic files, used at the end of the fiscal year, will be replaced by a new reporting file that will be sent to the ATO immediately after each and every pay run .

Businesses that do not comply may face certain fines from the ATO if the transition is not done on time and properly.

“This is a significant change and all technology platforms and organisations with more than 20 employees need to be compliant with Single Touch Payroll,” Marjukka says. “Our product development team has been closely liaising with ATO to ensure our platforms will be STP compliant come July 2018”.


Technology has always played a vital role in Payroll and HR services.

“We have a specific advantage in developing payroll and HR technology. Because we deliver outsourced payroll services to hundreds of organisations, we have in-house operators giving us regular feedback on the functionality of our payroll software. That feeds into the development of our technology. For Ascender, Payroll constitutes the core of its offering but it is closely aligned with other HR processes including leave management, time management, recruitment and on- boarding.”

“Ascender doesn’t do Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO), nor do we design compensation programs, but we have the expertise to implement the technology that underpins these critical functions, as well as deliver the administrative aspects of these processes, together with our Payroll offering.”

While, at its heart, Ascender remains a services company, it is supported by and leverages this leading edge, internally developed technology to process thousands of payrolls every year.

“We have end to end ownership over service delivery, which gives the company certainty over its outcomes in payroll and HR. We control and develop the technology and we operate, support and run the processes for the technology.  It is important that we have that control so that we can quickly get to any issues that arise.”


Ascender’s strong aspiration to continue its growth trajectory focuses on increasing investment in its people, processes and technology. The philosophy underpinning these investments, one that has been around since its foundation, will always be an emphasis on nurturing the trust and relationships with their employees and customers.

“We are also looking at strategic acquisitions and expanding our footprint and control but only where it supports our mission to be a trusted brand with the prosperity of employees in mind,” Marjukka says.

“Companies want to make sure they are in safe hands and are dealing with an organisation that holds security, integrity and compliance in the highest regard and is relentless in their focus with regulatory, legislative and business compliance.”

Ascender is unique in its approach to payroll and has the courage of its conviction when it comes to people. This is a company that identifies strongly in its corporate philosophy of putting trust in matters that are important to people through technology and human expertise, and will continue to lead the future of Payroll.


Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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