CONTROLLER FAST STATS
Bachelor’s degree (min.)
in accounting, finance or related field
CPA, CMA, CGMA (recommended)
19% growth (fast!)
A controller (or financial controller) is the head of a company’s accounting department. They are in charge of all account information, financial reporting, budgeting, tax documentation, bookkeeping, accounts payable and receivable, and anything else involving payment.
As a senior position in any organization, the controller job description comes with a wide range of responsibilities. Called ‘’comptrollers’’ in the non-profit and governmental world, they job can have broader responsibilities and be an even more senior position.
At large companies the controller job description is largely managerial. They are typically supported by a team of accountants and accounting clerks and sometimes tax, credit and payroll managers all of whom they manage. Accountants and accounting clerks gather, document and prepare financial and accounting information for executive appraisal or tax compliance.
All of this work is prepared for the controller who then ‘‘controls’’ it for quality and accuracy before passing it along to the CFO and sometimes a treasurer who then decide how to use that information to guide a company’s investments and financial direction through cash and risk management.
At smaller companies the controller job description is broader as it involves more bookkeeping than management. Smaller companies usually require a controller to perform many or all accounting duties alone or with the assistance of an accounting clerk or accounts payable clerk. Controllers have much more immediate responsibility in smaller companies as they process all of a company’s financial information personally.
Controllers often report directly to company owners or CEOs thus functioning in a more integral, company-shaping role. As they input analysis of how best to use financial information to guide a company’s future investment, marketing and planning, small-company controllers act as a CFO would in a larger organization.
Controllers are in charge of all accounting and financial operations in a company. That includes minimizing risk by producing thorough controls and budgets, producing accurate financial reporting of fiscal activity and maintaining well-documented accounts.
In larger companies controllers manage a team of accounting and financial professionals that produce financial reports, maintain accurate accounting systems of all transactions and prepare tax documentation for compliance with local and regional authorities.
Controllers in larger companies also manage any services performed by consultants or outside organizations and any subsidiary entities in the case of large corporations. In smaller companies controllers either do all of this work themselves or do it with help from an accounting clerk or two.
1. Great controllers are good managers.
Great controllers organize accounting staff and delegate assignments efficiently and in furtherance of company goals. In small companies, if not managing a small accounting staff, great controllers manage all of a company’s financials and custom designed policies and procedures for account records and financial statement production.
2. Great controllers know their company well.
Great controllers are in tune with their company’s business plan and financial targets, so much so that they are capable of advising executives about managing cash flows and creating performance and output goals for production of goods and services.
3. Great controllers are good analysts.
Great controllers are so familiar with their companies’ accounts, financial statements, revenues and debts that they are able to analyze bigger picture trends and help executives make decisions regarding their financial future, including investing capital, coming to advantageous agreements when drawing up contracts and maximizing profitability when pricing.
A financial controller working in a small company who does not have a large team of accounting professionals to manage will have a day that looks a lot like an accountant’s day. They will be responsible for doing all accounting duties in that company.
So, perhaps their day may begin with basic bookkeeping, making sure that all accounts receivable and payable are accurately documented and logged in ledgers and databases. The day may continue with gathering information and records to prepare a periodic financial statement for presentation to an executive or owner. Tax documents must also be compiled and accurately prepared to assure compliance.
Finally the controller must sit down with executives or owners to present all financial information in a big-picture format and advise them on important business and financial decisions to move the company forward and help it to meet its investment goals and sales targets.
''...in small businesses controllers have their hands in all matters financial and accounting and work hand in hand with executives or owners...''
A financial controller working for a larger company has the exact same responsibilities but will spend most of the day delegating those tasks to a team of accounting and financial professionals.
They manage and monitor the team’s work for quality control, accuracy, and efficiency. When assignments are complete, the large company controller compiles all of the account information, financial statements, and tax documents to present to a CFO or treasurer.
It is their responsibility to make sure everything is accurate and also to be familiar enough with the information to summarize its relevance to company financial targets and profitability.
Travel may be necessary to manage accounting staff in subsidiary divisions in cases where controllers work for larger corporations, but typically all work is done within the home office.
- Produce financial reports and issue them for shareholder review
- Manage accounting records
- Manage a team of accounting professionals
- Manage payroll, compliance, and inventory employees
- Formulate budgets that match forecasted revenue
- Issue all payments for accounts payable in a timely manner
- Publicly report accurate financial statements in compliance with financial regulations
- Prepare and file tax documents in compliance with local and regional statutes
- Conduct internal audits of accounts and financial statements
- Recruiting and training accounting and financial staff
- Keep apprised of changing financial regulations to ensure continuing compliance
A bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance or related fields is expected for almost all controller positions. Master’s degree in business administration (MBA) or accounting is preferred.
A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or qualification is highly desired by employers in their candidates for a controller position. A Certified Management Accountant (CMA) or a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) qualification can also be a big plus for a controller candidate.
These qualifications are difficult to obtain, require graduate-level credits and years of accounting experience and typically are undertaken after some preparatory training or coursework.
Seven to ten years of relevant experience in accounting or finance is usually a baseline requirement for any controller position. Larger companies tend to prefer some of that experience be in a large business or corporate environment whereas small businesses prioritize hands-on experience with all aspects of accounting and finance as opposed to preferring managerial skills.
Controllers are required to have all the skills of an accountant, including accounting math and numbers expertise, accurate reporting, detail-oriented auditing, confidentiality and ethical behavior, organization, time-management, and communication.
They are also required to have strong leadership and management skills, be savvy and up to date on laws and regulations regarding taxes and finance, and be comfortable with Excel and accounting related software.
''Controller salary is typically quite high, particularly in larger organizations where salaries can exceed $250,00 or more.''
The ideal controller resume lists 10+ years experience working as an accountant in a position that allows for deep understanding of financial trends for reporting and forecasting. It also lists an MBA in finance or master’s degree in accounting as well as a CPA, CMA or CGMA certification.
More ideal for a larger company or corporation is some experience working with a team of accounting professionals and even having some managerial experience over a team or a section of a team.
One may even acquire the ideal experience by working their way up through an accounting team, getting to know the organization and colleagues in a way an external applicant cannot.
More ideal for smaller businesses may be experience working as an accountant in other small businesses within the same industry, having one’s hands in all matters financial and accounting and working hand in hand with executives or owners to develop investment strategy, manage cash flows, make budgeting projections and price and market products or services.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics categorizes controllers as financial managers, thus listing the median controller salary in 2017 as $125,080 per year. The job growth outlook for controllers (financial managers) is 19% between 2016-2026, a much faster than average rate of growth.
Controller salary is typically quite high, particularly in larger organizations where salaries can exceed $250,00 or more. Smaller businesses tend to pay closer to or less than the median salary but often consider controllers as executives and offer them stakes in their organizations’ growth.
"...job growth outlook for controllers is 19% between 2016-2026, a much faster than average rate of growth..."
Like an accountant, being a controller is a very specific career path that begins with a narrowly focused education in accounting or finance. Finally, the expectation of an accounting certification narrows the path to being a controller even further, as those certifications require graduate degrees in accounting or finance and years of experience working in the field to acquire.
If you decide to go down those paths towards being a controller, then deciding whether to move towards management in a larger organization or to do nitty-gritty accounting work and be an executive adviser in a small business is the next step.
Both have their finer qualities and can be a good fit depending on the type of work environment you're looking for, whether or not you are keen on leadership and management and whether you prefer higher pay to more responsibility in shaping a company’s direction.
It can be a high stress position depending on the type of organization and your role as a controller, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding position on a path to becoming a CFO or CEO or growing a smaller business into a more profitable and successful one.
Management and leadership - delegating tasks to a team of accounting professionals and monitoring their performance for accurate reporting; guiding the team through changes in regulations, policies, procedures or financial targets and goals
Math and numbers - calculating taxes owed, creating spreadsheets to calculate expenditures and receivables, making simple and complex calculations for current and projected account status
Analysis - looking carefully at accounts and financial documents to add money-saving efficiencies to business plans and client goals; creating financial and accounting solutions to reduce expenses while increasing profit; smart budgeting that takes advantage of current conditions and maximizes resources; forecasting and making budget projections to meet new targets and increase profit margins
Communication - establishing trust with executives and accounting and financial team members; making accounting and financial transaction language easily digestible for to help executives make informed financial decisions, establishing trust with clients or executives
Time management - managing competing demands for document preparation and account auditing; presenting accounting reports to executives, filing tax documents, budgeting and bookkeeping all at the same time
Compliance - documenting and analyzing confidential financial information for clients and businesses, filing accurate tax reports, reporting financial transactions accurately to regulatory compliance agencies
- Financial manager
- Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Internal auditor
- Revenue analyst
- Accounting research manager