A Look At What Comptrollers Do

By Amy Fontinelle AAA

Also called a "controller" or "financial controller," comptrollers are a type of financial manager. This article will teach you about a comptroller's job responsibilities, skill set and formal educational requirements as well as the career ladder for this job.

Job Description and Responsibilities
As managers of a company's or government agency's accounting department, comptrollers oversee the preparation of financial statements, including income statements and balance sheets, as well as income and expense projections (budgeting) and auditing. They look for ways to help organizations reduce costs, and they help businesses evaluate new opportunities and possible acquisitions. With their broad knowledge of the organization's financial operations, they may advise management on financial decisions.

Comptrollers also prepare government-mandated reports and financial statements and ensure that the organization's financial details meet both legal requirements and the organization's internal requirements. Comptrollers may even be responsible for helping an organization to establish its financial policies and procedures. In the private sector, they also need to stay informed about the constant changes in generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting; in the public sector, they need to stay current with Government Auditing Standards (GAS).

A comptroller's duties vary with an organization's size. At a small organization, the comptroller's duties may include everything from menial to high-level financial tasks. Responsibilities will likely include basic bookkeeping tasks like invoicing, payment processing, payroll, bank statement reconciliations and cash management, all the way up to CFO-level duties like risk management.

At a large organization, bookkeepers handle the lower-level tasks, while treasurers and CFOs handle the higher-level tasks, leaving comptrollers somewhere in between to act as accounting managers. In a managerial role, comptrollers produce financial reports, maintain accounting records and ensure compliance with accounting standards. In general, think of the comptroller as the company's head accountant.

Calvin Harris, Jr., is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and the president of Change Management at Harvin Consulting LLC, based in Columbia, Md. He has managed $10+ million as CFO for the Council for Excellence in Government; $50+ million as CFO for Aeras; and $100+ million as controller for the United Nations Foundation, NeighborWorks America and Morgan State University. He says a comptroller has to be good with numbers and have a strong knowledge of accounting. He or she also "needs to be very comfortable with working on a computer, as most reporting and recording of data will be through an accounting software package and a spreadsheet application like Microsoft Excel," he says. Finally, a comptroller should be skilled in managing people, specifically staff accountants, and good at providing clear directions for them to succeed.

Job Requirements and Career Ladder
To become a comptroller, you'll typically need a bachelor's degree in accounting or business administration. "Many larger companies will want someone that also has a master's degree or is a Certified Public Accountant," Harris adds, noting that a master's degree is a prerequisite for becoming a CPA. There is no professional designation specific to comptrollers, but many comptrollers are CPAs or Certified Management Accountants (CMAs).

Joellen Sommer, owner of Your Own CFO, describes what the career ladder for a comptroller looks like. She acts as a hands-on interim or part-time CFO or controller for a variety of small to mid-sized companies that can't afford or don't need a full-time CFO or controller. She is a CPA, Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), and Certified Quickbooks Pro Advisor. Before starting her own business, she held senior financial and operations positions at The Nielsen Company, The New York Times, Greater Than One and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. In her 15 years of corporate experience, she has worked as a controller, business manager, vice president and CFO.

Sommer earned her undergraduate degree in journalism; she acquired her accounting background through an MBA degree. "The pedigree for any type of professional career in accounting is a four year degree or an MBA or both, coupled with Big Four [PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd, Ernst & Young or KPMG] public accounting experience. If not Big Four, a good second-tier firm," she says.

"In a large company, you may start as a controller if you have at least three to five years of prior experience in an accounting firm. If not, you may come in as a staff accountant, do the job for one to two years, become a supervisor or assistant controller and then move into the controller spot," she says. "A management accountant may start on the same path but take a more proactive role in budgeting, forecasting and future plans."

"In smaller firms, you might find a controller who has been through the school of hard knocks and was a great bookkeeper who worked their way up," Sommer says. "In my experience, although these folks are often competent, they are limited in what they can do and lack the foundation one develops in public accounting for internal controls and proper procedures."

The next steps after gaining experience as a comptroller vary from company to company and are based on one's personality, she says. The next step could be a managerial position such as CFO, vice president of finance, general manager or operations manager. "Those that want to stick with the pure numbers and reporting may take on different types of reporting roles in different firms and frequently move from [being] the controller of one division to another," she says.

Harris also began his career at a Big Four accounting firm. He has held forensic accounting and senior management positions, including CFO. He says the typical career ladder for a comptroller begins at the staff accountant level, then moves up to senior accountant or assistant comptroller. Management positions, eventually leading as high as CEO, can follow a comptroller position.

The Bottom Line
The educational requirements and career path for becoming a comptroller are straightforward: get a degree in accounting and work your way up from staff accountant to positions with increasingly greater responsibility and authority. With median pay in the low six figures and excellent opportunities for advancement, working as a comptroller, controller or financial controller could be a great career choice for someone who enjoys working with numbers and accepting a high level of responsibility for an organization's financial operations.

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