The controller oversees the accounting operations of a company. This senior position generally requires years of proven experience in various levels of accounting. A controller's job duties span a broad gamut. Generally speaking, in smaller companies, the controller must take on more duties. In a small business, it is common for the controller to have the final say on every financial decision, such as budgeting, reporting, investing and risk management. In larger companies, the duties of the controller are often more specialized, with certain financial decisions shifted to other executives, such as the chief financial officer (CFO).
The controller manages accounting records and is responsible for the production of financial reports. For public companies traded on stock exchanges, these reports are required by law for shareholders' review. The controller is responsible for ensuring that they are issued on time, in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and that they fairly and accurately reflect the company's current financial position.
Maintenance of accounting records falls under the purview of the controller. Particularly in the wake of the early 21st-century accounting scandals that brought down companies such as Enron and WorldCom, it is paramount for a business of any size to maintain an operable system of keeping and maintaining accounting records. At most companies, the controller has the final say on how these records are kept and where they are stored. The controller oversees all employees involved in the accounting process, including accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll, inventory and compliance.
If a company has subsidiaries, the controller oversees their accounting operations and ensures their reporting and control systems fall within the parameters set by the parent company. Generally, accounting personnel at these subsidiary operations report to an accounting manager or vice president at the subsidiary, who in turn reports to the controller at the parent company.
Budgets and Transactions
The controller plays a large role in formulating company budgets and ensuring that expenses are in line with projected revenue. The job requires ensuring that the company makes accounts payable payments on time and that debt is serviced properly. At most companies, these duties are delegated to employees, such as an accounts payable manager, who reports to the controller, but the buck stops with the controller. It is ultimately their responsibility to ensure budgets make sense and payments are made on time.
Forecasting is an important part of the job for many controllers. Drawing up a budget that allocates expenses in the most auspicious manner requires having an accurate projection of how much money is coming in during the same period. At a large company, the controller's department usually features analysts and other skilled professionals who extrapolate internal and external data to come up with the most accurate revenue forecasts. Again, the controller may not conduct these duties on their own, but they are responsible for reviewing the work of their employees and using their findings to make final decisions on budgeting matters.
In no arena are companies more scrutinized and regulated than in finance. After the financial crisis of 2008, a host of new regulations dictated how businesses must handle their finances and report their financial positions to the public. Publicly traded companies must subject their financial statements to yearly third-party audits, and they must release the results of the audits to the public. It is the controller's job to coordinate this process and ensure that the auditors have all the information they need to render an accurate judgment of the company's financial statements. The controller must stay apprised of all the local, state and federal tax laws and business regulations that affect their company, and they must ensure that the company operates within the proper parameters.
No hard and fast educational requirements exist for those wishing to become company controllers. Unlike becoming a doctor, which requires medical school and passing the medical boards, or a lawyer, for which law school is required and then the bar exam, a person can theoretically serve as a controller without a college degree. However, "theoretically" is the operative word in that sentence. In the current job market, nearly all companies hiring for the controller position want to see at least a bachelor's degree and preferably a master's degree, and they also generally want Certified Public Accountants (CPAs).
To be competitive, aspiring controllers should start with a college major of accounting, economics, finance or statistics, and follow it up with an MBA or master's of accountancy (MAcc) degree. The master's degree is more than an educational credential; it also fulfills the educational requirement to sit for the CPA exam, something an aspiring controller should have on their resume.
A controller needs to possess the same skills a good accountant has: strong numerical proficiency, organization, good problem-solving skills and excellent use of logic. Furthermore, since a large part of the job is delegating tasks to subordinates and then aggregating their work to make final decisions, a controller must have excellent leadership skills and a big-picture method to approaching tasks.
Most people do not become controllers right out of school. Obtaining this position requires a willingness to work through the ranks, often starting with thankless jobs such as entry-level accounting or auditing. The workers who excel in these jobs and put the most into them are the ones most likely to be considered for promotions, which lead up the ladder, possibly to the controller position.
Accounting professionals who make it to the controller position enjoy above-average salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2019 the median annual income for a controller (listed as financial managers) is $129,890. However, this is just the median number, and among the 50% who make more than this, many make a lot more. Controllers at Fortune 500 companies regularly earn well into six figures and sometimes more than $250,000. At small companies, the pay is often less. However, the advantage to working for a small business is that high-ranking employees, such as controllers, often get to share in the growth of the company.