Every company, regardless of industry or size, needs someone to oversee its financial operations. Like their name implies, financial controllers ensure a business’ day-to-day financial operations meet compliance standards and align with a company's strategy. Also known as lead accountants or company historians, these senior-level professionals are the ones who truly know their business inside and out.

What is a financial controller?

If you've ever wondered who's accountable for a company’s books and financial close, look no further than the financial controller. This enormous responsibility falls squarely on their shoulders. Additionally, the job has grown even more complex as the workplace shifts from in-office to work-from-home scenarios.

Controllers need to be familiar with the latest technology that supports a remote close, which is a perfect example of the digital transformation currently occurring in the accounting and finance fields. Within a remote working environment, these professionals need to ensure that all proper risks and controls are in place for a safe and compliant close.

A company's books and financial close are crucial to success, but what else does a controller do? Additional responsibilities include compiling and preparing a variety of records like income reports, expenses, balance sheets, and the like. Controllers oversee internal audits and keep an eye on tax compliance. They're also involved in forecasting and budgeting.

Besides hiring and training the financial staff, controllers also head up an accounting staff. Plus, they manage the payroll and create financial policies for their department and the overall business. Basically, a financial controller is a company's lead accountant, ensuring that the business' ledgers do indeed balance.

How are they different from traditional accountants?

Having a strong background in accounting is critical for the role, but a financial controller is different from a traditional accountant in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious difference relates to timing.

Controllers generally analyze numbers in order to better look into the future. They’re more concerned with forecasting and strategy, so that they can anticipate future challenges, issues, and opportunities. Traditional accountants, on the other hand, are more concerned with past performance. They look at historical data to analyze a company's financial records to date.

Is a controller the same as a comptroller?

A comptroller is a type of financial controller who works in a nonprofit or government organization. Controllers typically work in for-profit organizations, reporting to the company's chief financial officer (CFO). A comptroller in a nonprofit or government organization, however, would be considered the equivalent of a CFO. They're senior-level employees who oversee all of a company's accounting tasks such as payroll, loans, accounts receivable, etc.

How is it different from a CFO?

While CFOs and controllers have related skills, their responsibilities within a company are quite different. The two roles complement each other to help a business fulfill its goals. A financial controller is an accounting expert whose work is quite technical and needs to be precise. Generally, they are a certified public accountant (CPA). A CFO, by contrast, lives in the wider finance world of financial planning, investing, and capital markets. They too need to have a good grasp of accounting, but they don't necessarily need to be a CPA.

A controller's tasks are deadline-oriented and procedural, along the lines of closing the monthly books and running company payrolls. They monitor internal controls to minimize risks and avoid or discover errors and fraud. Their focus is mainly targeted on a company's historical data. CFOs, however, are more concerned with the future. They're honed in on far-reaching strategies for the company that cover short- and long-term growth. Things like generating forecasts and considering all sorts of scenario analyses help them predict a company's potential future.

How do I become a financial controller?

Landing the role of a company's controller usually involves years of education and extensive work experience in finance and business. The minimum educational requirement for becoming a financial controller is earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance. Often financial controllers will have earned an MBA or a master’s degree in a specialty like accounting. Some financial controllers sit for the CPA exam and earn the CPA certification and licensure.

Being a controller is not an entry-level position. If you’re early in your career, know that you will need to put in your time for a good number of years to gain professional accounting experience. Climbing the corporate ladder to an assistant controller is the customary path for ultimately becoming a financial controller.

What are some best practices controllers use today?

Forget Spreadsheets

The days of simply crunching numbers in spreadsheets are over. Instead, today's controllers rely heavily on enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to import their data. These data-driven and automated systems can reduce manual errors commonly found in spreadsheets, thus reducing overall risk.

Embrace Automation

Using ERP systems and other financial applications, financial controllers have found they can consolidate, report, and perform allocations via automation. By transforming and streamlining processes, they're learning the benefits of real-time data sharing, not to mention enhanced accuracy and compliance with regulatory standards.

Lead with Data

Financial controllers have embraced the data revolution and work across their organizations to capture data that informs better decision making. Data analytics can be used to improve risk management, compliance, tax, audit, and strategic planning.

Be Certain of Uncertainty

A main skill of controllers is the ability to calculate future risks and opportunities. These days, anything can happen and knowing your unknowns (or at least planning for them) helps mitigate risks for your company. The ability to forecast and adapt on the fly will keep your business moving in the right direction.

Use Self-Service Tools

As controllers become more and more associated with key business and customer data, it's imperative that they can pull and analyze data from various points of entry at any given notice. To do that, they need access to powerful self-service reporting tools such as Tableau Desktop, Power BI, or Domo.

Deploy Integrated Systems

Top-performing controllers are using business systems that ensure seamless handover of joint financials to the financial planning and analysis (FP&A) team. This creates a single source of truth when it comes to data that integrates a variety of systems such as budgeting, reporting, analytics, and more. It also enables the centralization of supporting documents, accessible from any location.

Continuing to Learn

Education is an ongoing process. As the financial landscape changes with new regulations and standards, a good controller will need to be on top of it all. That means keeping up with the industry news, networking events, new certifications, and more.

Adapting to the New Normal of Work

The best financial controllers have set up decentralized systems to foster collaboration, particularly in the close process. They take their responsibilities as leader and project manager seriously, making sure they’re fostering a positive and productive work environment.

What are the benefits of becoming a financial controller?

Pursuing a career as a financial controller can certainly be rewarding. With a number of critical financial responsibilities and duties, the position offers plenty of career growth, as well as a high pay rate. In fact, a financial controller salary range in the U.S. falls between $111,00 and $210,750, with the median base pay hitting $160,250, according to the 2024 Salary Guide by Robert Half.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of finance managers (who are also called financial controllers) to grow 16% between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the average for all occupations. More than 69,000 openings for financial managers are projected each year for the next decade.