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Accounting controllers hold senior management positions within companies' financial departments. They act as advanced accounting technicians and staff managers. Controllers can work in nearly any field, and the demand for these professionals continues to grow in public and private organizations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects careers in financial management to grow by 15% from 2019-2029.
The best accounting controller candidates enjoy leadership roles and can demonstrate their accounting proficiency through years of experience and advanced education. Earning a master of business administration (MBA) in accounting can benefit prospective controllers — an MBA's specialized curriculum offers a well-rounded approach to business, accounting, and management.
What Is a Company Controller?
A company controller oversees the scope of a company's accounting operations. Accounting controllers also direct organizations' financial decisions, monitor accounting software, and regulate financial systems. A business' financial health often relies heavily on its accounting controller.
In addition to financial forecasting and managing accounts, accounting controllers also perform managerial duties. Staff management obligations can vary based on company size, but controllers often lead accounting teams within companies. For this reason, accounting controllers also need strong interpersonal skills like leadership, communication, and collaboration.
A company controller oversees the scope of a company's accounting operations.
Working as a controller in accounting can lead to further promotion in the financial industry. An ambitious accountant may pursue a company controlling role to work towards a coveted position as a chief financial officer (CFO), who earned an average base salary of $136,600 as of May 2021.
Ideal candidates for accounting controller positions hold higher-level accounting degrees and possess several years of professional experience. Since controllers need to maintain various job responsibilities, aspiring controllers need to balance the following soft and hard skills.
Key Soft Skills for Controllers
- Attention to Detail: Controllers consistently maintain precise and detailed accounting records, ledgers, payroll, and taxes for their organizations.
- Managerial Skills: Since accounting controllers hold leadership positions, they must multi-task, delegate to subordinates, and insist on a high standard of work.
- Interpersonal Strengths: Working to ensure the financial health of an organization requires a team effort, so company controllers must demonstrate proficiency in collaborating and communicating with others.
- Confidence: Accounting controllers must regularly make crucial financial management decisions, assessing complex scenarios and demonstrating confidence in making changes.
Key Hard Skills for Controllers
- Accounting Expertise: Controllers must maintain proficient knowledge of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and the ability to deploy those skills for their companies.
- Software Proficiency: Financial analysis now primarily relies on accounting software. Controllers use current technology to collect and consolidate financial data.
- Knowledge of Tax Law: Controllers working for public companies must employ knowledge of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Sarbanes-Oxley Act regulations.
- Record-Keeping Skills: Company controllers must reconcile accounts, coordinate audits, and ensure income tax compliance.
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A Day in the Life of a Controller
In a typical workday, accounting controllers oversee their organizations' financial processes. They apply GAAP principles to make decisions about keeping records, along with setting goals and budgets for their teams. They may also delegate bookkeeping tasks to their accounting teams and collaborate with CFOs.
Typical daily tasks for controllers may include:
- Forecasting expenditures
- Allocating company expenses
- Maintaining accounting records
- Formulating budgets
- Projecting revenue
- Managing accounts payable and receivable
- Overseeing company payroll
- Preparing balance sheets and income statements
- Examining inventory to make future projections
- Advising subordinates on the accounting process
- Collecting internal and external financial data
- Applying tax law to various scenarios
- Evaluating and selecting integrative technology
- Using accounting software and invoice generators
- Coordinating financial statements for annual audit processes
- Investing financial assets
Controller Salary and Career Outlook
Ambitious accountants hoping to increase their salaries and pursue leadership opportunities may consider controller positions. Accounting controllers apply their established financial skill sets to their work while gaining valuable management experience. These combined experiences help to bolster resumes and make controllers competitive in the job market.
Salary Expectations for Accounting Controllers
Salary expectations for accounting controllers often depend on the following workplace factors:
Although accountants and controllers play a vital role in nearly every industry, salaries differ across fields. Controllers looking to earn the highest salaries should seek employment with one of the Big Four firms: Deloitte, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, or Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler.
Job Function and Level
A controller's responsibilities vary based on their company's size, so salaries vary accordingly. In larger companies, controllers manage teams of accountants and oversee financial decisions, so they may earn more than a controller in a smaller organization with fewer managerial responsibilities.
Education level often matters beyond the hiring process. Candidates who hold MBAs in accountancy often earn higher salaries.
Salaries for controllers depend heavily on job experience. Explore the following information on how average salary changes with experience.
Next Steps on the Career Path
As a senior accounting manager, a controller gains valuable leadership experience that enables future career advancement. After gaining experience as a controller, professionals can pursue positions as company treasurers or CFOs.
While a controller manages an organization's accounting department, a treasurer oversees the entire financial department. Treasurers perform similar work as controllers, but treasurers also create and present departmental strategies for senior management teams. They may also hold more personnel duties like directing, evaluating, and disciplining staff members. Company treasurers make an average salary of $79,990 as of May 2021.
CFOs hold the most senior financial executive office within companies. These professionals manage all financial actions for a company and oversee large teams of subordinates. Their responsibilities often include financial planning, analyzing financial strengths and weaknesses, and proposing corrective solutions. CFOs earn an average salary of $136,600 as of May 2021.
Where Can I Work as a Controller?
The short answer: nearly anywhere. Controllers can find employment wherever a company needs accounting management. The longer answer considers elements like job demand and availability, population density, industry, and job duties.
State of residency can affect industry demand for accounting controllers. Urban areas with higher population densities and business commerce require more financial management, accounting, and company controllers. By contrast, more rural areas with small, locally owned businesses demand far fewer professional accounting teams but may still need controller expertise.
Since cost of living varies by state, prospective controllers should carefully consider the quality of life they can afford based on projected salary and living expenses. Some of the most lucrative cities for the business and accounting industry carry steep housing, utilities, and transportation costs.
Accounting is an important function of nearly every organization, allowing controllers to work in many different settings. Business and corporate controller positions remain in high demand, but even smaller companies sometimes need support in managing accounting infrastructure. The federal executive branch and government also employ thousands of accounting professionals.
Job duties and responsibilities for controllers vary among different settings. With larger organizations, controllers delegate more tasks and oversee accounting teams. Controllers in smaller organizations engage with more practical work and personally maintain records.
Since accounting controllers maintain responsibilities for both financial figures and staff members, they need to demonstrate their job readiness through their resumes and accomplishments. In addition to maintaining 7-10 years of accounting experience, controller candidates should also demonstrate advanced education and certification to their prospective employers.
Education Requirements for Controllers
Most hiring managers expect each candidate to hold a bachelor's degree in accounting but prefer a master's degree. A master of arts in accountancy degree offers sufficient job training, but an MBA in accounting or MBA in finance may better prepare graduates to manage teams of people.
Holding a graduate-level degree also offers an advantage in salary negotiation. A master's degree demonstrates comprehensive knowledge of the accounting field and fulfills the educational requirement for candidates to sit the certified public accountant (CPA) exam. Aspiring controllers with master's degrees and industry certifications negotiate for higher salaries.
License and Certification Requirements for Controllers
Most senior accounting and controller jobs require a CPA designation, but depending on the organization's size, they may prefer candidates with additional certifications. Many hiring companies prefer certified management accountants, chartered global management accountants, and chartered financial analysts for leadership roles.
Holding these certifications helps applicants communicate their professional qualifications and industry capabilities. They may also help accounting professionals advance their careers into upper management. Prospective controllers can pursue certification through the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants or the American Association for Investment and Financial Management.
Required Experience for Controllers
For many hiring companies, industry experience holds as much weight as education. Controller candidates often need nearly a decade of accounting experience. This steep experience requirement ensures that accounting controllers remain proficient in GAAP and tax law to guide and advise entire accounting departments.
Pursued individually, the education, certification, and work experience requirements could take a candidate more than 15 years to accomplish. However, pursuing an online MBA allows accounting professionals to work while studying. This unique opportunity shortens the traditional trajectory by permitting candidates to expand their education and experience simultaneously.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a company controller an accountant?
A company controller is a senior management accountant. They lead accounting teams and departments. These jobs generally require 7-10 years of accounting experience.
What is the difference between a controller and a CFO?
A controller is a step above an accountant but a step below a CFO. In larger organizations, a controller and a CFO may regularly collaborate to set goals and budgets.
What are the duties of a controller in business?
Controllers handle many responsibilities, including managing accounting departments, maintaining records, collecting data, and overseeing staff members.
How much do accounting controllers make?
On average, salaries for controllers range from $65,000-$90,000 per year based on experience. These figures can vary by state.
Feature Image: Rob Daly / OJO Images / Getty Images
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