The financial controller is no longer just a manager who oversees bookkeeping and accounting, but rather the executive who owns those systems. In this role, you may be involved in everything from banking relationships to equipment investments to benefit plan updates to business intelligence—and more.
While the financial and accounting hierarchies at different companies can vary, you’ll almost always find financial controllers near the top. At most firms, you’ll find financial controllers reporting directly to the chief financial officer (CFO), on equal footing with accounting managers and finance directors. At businesses where a financial controller doesn’t occupy a top spot, there may not be one at all.
The simplest answer to the question ‘What is a financial controller?’ is: the person responsible for overseeing and directing a company’s accounting functions. This answer is incomplete, however, because the scope of a financial controller’s responsibilities is growing year by year. A controller must indeed know a business’ general ledger backward and forward and see the significance of every data point. However, this job is about more than crunching numbers, preparing financial statements, and managing a stable of accountants. Modern-day financial controllers have ample opportunity to use creativity and strategic thinking, build and maintain relationships, and influence the financial trajectories of the organizations they serve.
Don’t assume that a CPA, a bachelor’s degree, a good head for math, and a couple of years in accounting are enough to get you into the financial controller seat. If you become a financial controller, you will be involved in just about every aspect of your company that involves money—and these days, that can mean you need an understanding of financial analysis, business intelligence, and automation.
In this article addressing the question what is a financial controller, we’ll cover:
Traditionally, financial controllers worked with—or under—the CFO to make sure that critical financial information was collected, interpreted, and reported reliably. The FC also helped develop strategies driven by anticipated market challenges or regulatory changes. In short, their goal was to provide their organization with the data it needed to meet its financial objectives, given its present and future capabilities. To some degree, this involved managing and monitoring accounting and financial activities for production, marketing, operations, and internal controls.
Financial controllers were responsible for:
Financial controllers still do all that, and it remains critical work because everyone at a firm relies on the financial controller’s figures when making significant business decisions. These days, though, FCs also handle a lot more, like:
It’s worth noting that the financial controller’s role at a smaller company often includes broader strategic responsibilities more commonly shouldered by CFOs. Every organization asks different things of its controller, so if you think you might like to become a financial controller, it’s worth reading through job listings to get a feel for what different companies expect from professionals in this role.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers predicted an average starting salary for 2019 MBA graduates of $84,580—provided those graduates found jobs in computer science, engineering, science, or business. (
Students considering an MBA or graduate business degree can choose from varied career paths, including those focused on financial management, data analytics, market research, healthcare management, and operations management. The analytical skills and problem-solving techniques gained from graduate level business degrees are in high demand across business sectors. ( )
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Executives in finance and accounting go by many titles, and controller and comptroller typically refer to the same position. Governmental and nonprofit organizations are more likely to use the term comptroller, while for-profit businesses usually have a financial controller.
There are, however, always exceptions. Some organizations have both a comptroller and a financial controller. In such instances, the former may represent a slightly more senior-level management position, with the comptroller essentially serving as CFO. Under this organization plan, both positions typically report to the chief executive officer (CEO).
Yes, and they may even be the top executive in the finance department at smaller companies without a CFO. At firms with a CFO, the finance controller is usually second-in-command, though leadership roles can vary significantly by organization and by state (due to state laws regarding allowed business structures).
Depending on the CFO’s responsibilities, a controller may end up handling many of the duties typically carried out by a chief financial officer. That’s because many CFOs devote much of their time to investor relations and external relationships, delegating tasks related to financial analysis, business development, and acquisitions to the financial controller (who at that point is an unofficial financial operations officer).
The most essential skills a financial controller needs are all related to accounting. They include:
Financial controllers also need solid technical skills, because the ability to manipulate Excel documents is no longer enough. Controllers who can use advanced business intelligence and forecasting software and understand the emerging value of artificial intelligence in business will probably go further than those still working exclusively with spreadsheets.
Financial controllers also need leadership and other soft skills. In an Ernst & Young report on the changing role of the financial controller, one FTSE 100 controller interviewed said: “Effective financial controllers have got to be able to lead teams and be technically proficient. You have to be able to step out of the detail, develop and coach people. You have to be strategic.” A great financial controller can organize and motivate staff and teams and develop useful working relationships with people across many departments, not just in the accounting department.
There’s no cookie-cutter educational path for aspiring financial controllers, though the first step to becoming a financial controller always involves earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, economics, or business from an accredited university or college. From there, you’ll need to pursue an MBA in finance, accounting, or economics—or a master’s degree in accounting and CPA, CMA, or CFA credentials (more on this below).
Most financial controllers have at least ten years of professional accounting experience or auditing experience, if not more—preferably with a Big Four firm. Working as an auditor or an accountant will give you a thorough understanding of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and may expose you to venture capital equity, market understanding, and enterprise-level planning systems.
The most common advancement path for financial controllers involves accruing experience in accounting or auditing before moving into an accounting manager role and then an assistant controller position (with or without a graduate degree or CPA certification). It’s not unusual for assistant financial controllers to stay in that role for many years—often while earning an MBA and CPA designation—before arriving as financial controllers. At smaller firms, an accountant or even a financial analyst or revenue management analyst can make the leap to a controller position, with the caveat that they may not be paid much more.
A lot of people assume that financial controllers are gunning for the CFO’s seat, but that’s not necessarily the case. Some people see financial controller as a terminal position. The Ernst & Young report cited above found that 50 percent of controllers interviewed were happy where they were and had no desire to become CFO.
While most controllers are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs), it is possible to become a financial controller without passing the CPA exam. Many newly minted accountants choose to get the Certified Public Accountant credential, but there are plenty of financial controllers who launched careers not in public accounting but in industry accounting or in other roles in finance. These controllers are just as likely to have earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation, the Certified Fraud Examiner designation, Certified Financial Controller designation, or the Certified Management Accountant designation.
The CMA, in particular, is probably the best alternative to the CPA. In an interview with Going Concern, Wayne Ledbetter, CMA, CFM, controller of Furniture Services Inc. said, “I believe that the CMA is growing in stature as a credential and will continue to as the number of CMAs increases, as they have in the last five-plus years,”
He’s not the only one who believes that the CPA requirement is not really a requirement at all. In a comment on the Proformative post Q&A Forum, Bryan Frey, a VP of Finance and Corporate Controller, said “I find that this requirement is typically part of job descriptions written by non-finance folks (that is: written by recruiters, people in HR, or CEOs). They simply don’t know any better and like to put up roadblocks in the hiring process because they think this produces a better outcome… With a CEO, though, you have a better shot—if you can get to him or her to explain.”
It’s up to every aspiring financial controller to determine which certification will be the most useful. CPA is probably still the gold standard designation for controllers, but with time, that may change.
The answer to this question depends on many factors, though it’s worth noting that financial controller can be a high-paying gig. While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track pay or the job outlook for financial controllers, in particular, it does report that financial managers make about $128,000 annually.
The BLS classifies financial controllers as a type of manager, along with treasurers, credit managers, and risk managers. PayScale paints a different and possibly more specific picture, listing the average financial controller salary at $82,407 (though the top 10 percent of earners make $123,000 or more).
The short answer is: people with analytical minds who are also flexible, motivated learners. Financial controllers handle so much more than accounting these days, and their new role in business isn’t fixed. According to the BLS, “Financial managers’ main responsibility used to be monitoring a company’s finances, but they now do more data analysis and advise senior managers on ways to maximize profits.”
Depending on where a financial controller works, the role may also have an IT component or involve business development. Whereas once a financial controller could call it a day after delivering up accounting data, they’re increasingly being asked to contribute to decision-making and strategizing and to provide organizations with self-service financial reporting and BI tools. Chances are that the evolving role of technology in business will continue to impact the responsibilities of financial controllers across industries.
How well any single financial controller does will probably depend on how well they can respond to changing and sometimes nebulous expectations. Number crunching is often only half of what this job entails, and it’s the CPAs and CMAs who can quickly figure out what the other half entails at a particular firm who will excel in this role.
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