Accountant vs. Controller: An Overview
Life as an accountant isn't particularly glamorous, but few career paths match its combination of solid pay, low stress, job security, and opportunity for advancement. Few accountants ever worry about burning out or feel compelled to switch industries, and many move into positions of prominence and importance in an organization. One such position is the controller (sometimes spelled "comptroller," but always pronounced "controller"), who is the person responsible for a firm's accounting-related activities.
It's better to look at experienced accountants (even managers or other senior-level positions) when making comparisons to controllers. Entry-level accountancy jobs may be perfectly fine, but the vast majority of controllers have years of experience and several professional certifications. Almost all controllers start out as public accountants or work in corporate settings before moving up.
Non-controller accountants have a number of specialties to choose from. Some go into auditing, others tax accounting, some work for the government, and others perform cost accounting and internal reports. Forensic accountants for the FBI even go through firearms training – about as far removed from the standard image of a calculator-punching accountant as you can get.
Accountants of all stripes serve as bookkeepers or analyze the work of other bookkeepers. They work to prevent fraud and maintain accuracy for their co-workers, investors, creditors, and regulators. Many become Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and are held to a strict code of professional ethics, not unlike those in the medical industry.
Controllers come in a few different stripes. The most common are business controllers and corporate controllers, who handle entire accounting systems for their employers. For smaller companies, this means setting up the accounting infrastructure and performing the bookkeeping, whereas larger companies use controllers in an overseer role. Other controllers work for the government and are akin to chief financial officers (CFOs) for their respective agencies.
A business controller is essentially a chief accounting officer for a firm. The controller is considered a member of the executive staff and typically plays a critical role in organizing and (for lack of a better term) controlling the accounting personnel in the company.
A common yet underappreciated role of the business controller is interpreting financial data. Controllers typically have a great deal of accounting and business forecasting experience, particularly as it pertains to tax management. A controller may also be called on to lend his or her expertise on investments, creditor relationships, corporate governance, or other areas.
Often, the controller has one or two assistant controllers at his disposal. Assistant controllers are normally less experienced and spend more time in the day-to-day minutiae of data collection, regulatory and statutory reporting, and the preparation of particularly challenging journal entries.
Key Differences in Education and Skills
Most accountants study accounting and receive a degree in that subject. It's possible to become an entry-level accountant with a degree in finance, statistics, mathematics, or economics, but employers clearly prefer someone with a deeper understanding of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).
Senior-level accountancy jobs require a CPA designation and maybe even a certified management accountant (CMA), chartered financial analyst (CFA), or other professional designation. Senior financial accounting and reporting jobs might need three to six years of work experience, while tax accountants or junior auditors might only need one to three years after passing the CPA exams.
It doesn't take years of direct accounting experience to become a controller, but it helps. Controllers, especially those for larger companies, have a wider focus than simply accounting protocol. Many have a Master of Business Administration (MBA) or another advanced degree in finance. Perhaps the most helpful designation to aspiring controllers is the CMA.
Key Differences in Salary
It's very difficult to nail down an average salary for mid- or upper-level accountants, but the majority of career accountants earn above $60,000 within three to five years after becoming CPAs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for accountants and auditors in 2018 was $70,500 ($33.89 per hour). Some positions, such as tax managers or internal audit managers, can earn as much as $100,000. Many accountants aspire to be partners at accounting firms, where they can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The median annual salary for financial managers – which includes controllers – was $127,990 in 2018 according to BLS data. In some industries, the term "comptroller" indicates an even more senior position and, ostensibly, an even higher salary.
Key Differences in Work/Life Balance
Most accountants work standard 40- to 45-hour weeks and enjoy plenty of paid leave, holidays, vacation time, and even a modest amount of schedule flexibility. Despite its boring reputation, accounting consistently ranks among the most satisfying careers.
However, accountants work famously long and intense hours during tax season (roughly February to April) before taking some time off during Spring and Summer. It's not uncommon to work more than 10 hours a day for six days a week during tax season.
A Berkeley analysis of controllers between 2013 and 2015 estimated that the average controller works 170 hours per month, or a little less than 43 hours a week. Like their accounting counterparts, controllers tend to experience a much better work/life balance than others in the financial industry.
The job outlook appears strong for both career paths. BLS data projects the number of financial manager jobs will grow 19% between 2016 and 2026. While the data does not break out the number of those positions that will be for the controller role, this is much faster than the 7% projected growth rate for all occupations during this period.
The number of accounting and auditing jobs in the United States is expected to increase by 10% between 2016 and 2026.
Decision Time: Accountant vs. Controller
You could boil down the choice between mid-level accountant and controller to one between specialization and general control. Most accountants become increasingly specialized and narrow in their career focus over a few years, in part because that helps fuel higher salaries. Controllers can't afford to be experts in just one area since they have to oversee entire accounting operations and offer systemic advice to their contemporaries.
Controllers tend to make more money and have to manage people and organize departments; not all accountants have the same responsibility. Some people thrive in management roles, and these are the best candidates for controller jobs. Others are happiest as experts in their own fields without the complications of oversight. This should be a major factor when deciding about a potential controller career.
- An accountant, or practitioner of accounting, keeps and analyzes financial records.
- A controller, or comptroller, oversees the accounting operations of a firm, including managing staff.
- Because controllers' duties and responsibilities expand beyond that of an accountant, they typically command larger salaries.
- Academically, there are no additional requirements to become a controller, but most have advanced degrees, such as an MBA.