CFO vs CPA: Which is Best for Your Business?

Written by Cameron McCool    |    Published: April 23, 2024

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cfo vs cpa

CFO vs CPA: both of these roles play a huge part in the financial success of a business. In this guide, we’ll share the difference between a CFO and a CPA and help you determine which of these experts is best placed to support your business goals.

Key Takeaways

  • A CFO, or Chief Financial Officer, plays a strategic role in an organization’s financial planning, while a CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, specializes in tax services, tax strategy, and accounting.
  • CFOs are primarily responsible for formulating and executing a company’s financial strategies. They concentrate on accelerating financial growth, reducing costs, and planning for the future. Their skills are broad, encompassing operations and corporate finance proficiency, as well as having a forward-looking approach to organizational planning.
  • CPAs specialize in tax strategy, ensuring that businesses comply with tax laws and regulations. Their responsibilities include the preparation and filing of tax returns, and they are skilled at identifying ways to minimize tax liabilities. With advanced knowledge in accounting, auditing, taxation, and financial reporting, CPAs are vital for maintaining accurate financial statements and providing consulting services.
  • Larger entities with intricate financial structures tend to benefit more from a CFO’s financial leadership and management, while smaller companies might see more value in a CPA’s expertise for tax planning and routine financial planning. Ultimately, the choice between hiring a CFO or a CPA hinges on the specific requirements and ambitions of a business.

What is a CFO?

A CFO, or Chief Financial Officer, plays a crucial role in steering the financial direction of a company. They are not only executive leaders but also strategists, responsible for a broad range of financial activities. These activities include developing financial KPIs that will drive business growth, conducting financial analysis to guide decisions, and performing market analysis to stay ahead of trends.

A CFO’s strategic responsibilities make them key in maintaining solid relationships with important financial stakeholders such as banks, investors, and shareholders, especially during critical times like fundraising. A CFO’s decisions are based on accurate financial information, typically provided by the financial controller and accounting department, which is essential for effective forecasting and budgeting.

A CFO is often vital for managing debt and fostering equity growth. Notably, smaller organizations often rely on outsourced CFO services to replicate this level of strategic financial management, ensuring they have the guidance to achieve, maintain, and improve their financial health.

CFO Key Functions include:

  • Capital investment planning
  • Financial risk evaluation
  • Creating financial projections
  • Cash flow planning and management
  • Monthly strategy meetings
  • Investor relations
  • Budgeting, forecasting, and planning

What is a CPA?

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a finance specialist dedicated to accounting and tax matters, recognized for their expertise and ethical standards. Achieving the CPA designation requires passing a rigorous exam and meeting continual education requirements to maintain licensure. CPAs are the go-to professionals for various tasks that revolve around financial statements, tax returns, and ensuring compliance with financial regulations.

Their role extends beyond mere number-crunching. CPAs are often seen as trusted advisors, helping business owners craft tax strategies that align with their business goals. They also have the skills to audit a company’s books comprehensively, ensuring accuracy and revealing insights into the financial health of an enterprise. Additionally, when financial or tax-related disputes arise, CPAs can provide critical support as litigation consultants.

CPAs are known for their analytical abilities and attention to detail. They bring a high level of proficiency to the use of tax and accounting software, which is vital in today’s technology-driven business environment. In a company’s financial team, their collaboration with bookkeepers and other accountants is pivotal for streamlined operations and strategic financial planning.

CPA Key Functions include:

  • Auditing financial records
  • Preparing and filing tax documents
  • Advising on tax and financial strategies
  • Serving as litigation consultants
  • Ensuring regulatory compliance

This unique set of skills and knowledge positions CPAs as integral members of any financial management team, critical to a business’s success.

What’s the difference between a CFO vs CPA?

A CFO is a senior executive with responsibility for managing the company’s overall financial actions. Their role is strategic, focusing on the long-term financial health of a business, which includes aspects like forecasting, budgeting, analyzing financial performance, and developing and executing a financial strategy. CFOs often tackle complex financial issues such as cash flow management, capital fundraising, and designing a capital structure that supports the company’s growth objectives and financial stability.

On the other hand, a CPA is a professional with a deep understanding of accounting, auditing, and taxation. While their work can touch on various aspects of a business’s finances, they are renowned for their tax expertise. CPAs prepare and file tax documents, devise tax strategies to minimize liabilities, and manage financial records with an eye toward audits and regulatory compliance. A CPA may operate as an external advisor or be part of an organization’s accounting staff, focusing on specific financial operations rather than overarching strategies.

In essence, comparing a CFO to a CPA is like comparing a general to a specialist within the realm of corporate finance and accounting. A CFO’s purview encompasses a broad spectrum of financial management elements, whereas a CPA brings a laser focus to accounting and tax-related issues.

Understanding the difference between a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) can be instrumental in optimizing the financial leadership of a company. Both roles are pivotal in ensuring a firm’s financial success, yet they serve different functions within the organization.

Here’s who you should turn to for help with the mission-critical aspects of your business’s financial activities.

Tax Strategy — CPA

Tax planning and tax strategy is year-round project and it should be directed by your CPA. CPAs are recognized for their command over tax law and proficiency in tax preparation and planning. They meticulously inspect financial records to ensure accuracy and guide business owners through the complexities of tax compliance. Tax strategy is a domain where CPAs truly shine; they work closely with business owners to identify potential tax deductions and credits, optimizing benefits to reduce the company’s overall tax burden.

Their skill set is especially valuable during tax season and in the unfortunate event of tax audits. By managing and defending the integrity of financial records, CPAs help businesses navigate these audits while maintaining compliance. The peace of mind that comes from having a CPA handle tax matters can be immeasurable, knowing that every obligation is met with precision.

Fundraising and Capital Structure — CFO

When it comes to raising capital and advising on the appropriate capital structure, a CFO is at the forefront. With their in-depth financial knowledge and experience, CFOs guide companies through the intricate process of securing funding, whether through debt, equity, or other financial instruments. They assess market conditions, investor expectations, and organizational needs to derive the optimal mix of financing that strikes a balance between risk and growth potential.

CFOs also play a key role in negotiating the terms of financing, leveraging their relationships with banks, investors, and other financial institutions. They present comprehensive financial forecasts that highlight the company’s path to sustainable growth, preparing and convincing stakeholders of the company’s value proposition. The strategic acumen of a CFO is crucial in ensuring the organization has the capital necessary to realize its long-term objectives.

Long-Term Financial Strategy — CFO

At the heart of a CFO’s role lies the development and execution of a long-term financial strategy that aligns with the company’s overarching vision. CFOs are tasked with financial forecasting, risk assessment, and making strategic recommendations that strengthen the business’s financial framework. Their strategic perspective drives decision-making processes regarding investments, resource allocation, and financial policies.

CFOs demonstrate their leadership by managing the accounting and finance teams to align operations with the strategic financial goals of the business. They are instrumental in helping the company measure and enhance its financial performance, taking calculated actions on mergers and acquisitions, engaging in shareholder management, and developing relationships with the financial community. A CFO’s guidance is pivotal in crafting a financial architecture that not only supports current business operations but also paves the way for future success.

CPA vs. CFO: Which Is Best for Your Business?

Deciding between CFO services and CPA services depends greatly on your company’s scale and financial goals. Here’s a brief look at when each professional is needed.


  • Tax preparation and filing
  • Compliance with tax laws
  • Managing accounts receivable


  • Financial forecasting
  • Strategic financial planning
  • Executive financial decision-making

Ultimately, while CPAs and CFOs both contribute to the financial success of a company, their functions are distinct and critical at different stages of business growth.

CFO vs CPA: Questions to Ask When Making This Decision

Working through the following questions will help you assess your business’s financial needs and decide on the best course of action—hire a CFO, turn to your CPA, or work with both.

Financial Strategy and Planning:

  • Am I struggling to develop long-term financial strategies for my business?
  • Do I need help creating budgets, forecasts, and financial plans?

If you answered yes to these, consider reaching out to a CFO.

Financial Reporting and Analysis:

  1. Am I having difficulty interpreting financial statements and reports?
  2. Do I need someone to analyze financial data to help me make informed decisions?

A CPA is the best expert to turn to for help with the above.

Risk Management:

  1. Am I concerned about financial risks facing my business?
  2. Do I need assistance in identifying and mitigating financial risks?

CFOs specialize in risk management. They can typically help you work through these areas.

Cash Flow Management:

  1. Am I experiencing cash flow problems or fluctuations?
  2. Do I need help managing cash flow to ensure business stability?

A CFO can provide expertise in cash flow management, helping to optimize cash flow and ensure your business remains financially stable.

Investment and Funding Decisions:

  1. Am I uncertain about the best investment opportunities for my business?
  2. Do I need assistance in securing funding or managing investor relations?

If you answered yes to the above, reach out to a CFO who specializes in securing funding and managing investor relations to support your business’s growth initiatives.

Tax Planning and Compliance:

  1. Am I struggling to understand tax laws and regulations relevant to my business?
  2. Do I need help optimizing my tax strategy and ensuring compliance?

A CPA can help optimize your tax strategy and ensure compliance with tax laws, minimizing tax liabilities and maximizing savings for your business.

Financial Systems and Processes:

  1. Are my financial systems and processes inefficient or outdated?
  2. Do I need assistance in implementing better financial systems and controls?

Both a CFO and a CPA can provide expertise in implementing robust financial systems and controls to streamline processes and improve overall financial management, but a CFO is more likely to oversee this aspect of your business’s financial operations.

Business Growth and Expansion:

  1. Am I planning to expand my business or enter new markets?
  2. Do I need financial expertise to support growth strategies and manage expansion?

If you answered yes here, consult with a CFO who can provide strategic financial guidance to support your business’s growth initiatives and expansion plans while helping to optimize financial resources and mitigate risks associated with expansion.

Mergers and Acquisitions:

  1. Am I considering mergers, acquisitions, or partnerships?
  2. Do I need financial guidance in evaluating potential deals and conducting due diligence?

Helping your business expand is part of a CFO’s remit. Reach out to a CFO who specializes in mergers and acquisitions to provide financial analysis and due diligence support throughout the transaction process.

Legal and Regulatory Compliance:

  1. Am I struggling to navigate complex financial regulations and compliance requirements?
  2. Do I need assistance in ensuring my business meets all legal and regulatory obligations?

A CPA can help ensure your business meets all legal and regulatory obligations, minimizing the risk of non-compliance and potential penalties. Consider consulting with a CPA who can provide expert guidance on navigating complex financial regulations and ensuring your business remains compliant with legal and regulatory requirements.

When do you need a CPA or CFO?

Businesses almost always need a CPA from day one; CPAs help startups set their accounting straight and provide tax planning, tax compliance, and tax filing services throughout the year. So the question here is more: when do I really need to hire a CFO, if at all?

As a business grows, the need for a full-time CFO becomes evident to oversee the financial health of the organization promptly and to devise and execute long-term financial strategies.

You’ll want to consider hiring a CFO when your business needs an expert to:

  • Devise and steer long-term financial strategies
  • Address cash flow issues
  • Align company activity with long-term business goals
  • Craft financial forecasts
  • Prepare the business for another round of fundraising
  • Guide your business through big-picture financial planning and risk management

CFO vs CPA: Hiline Can Give You Both

Hiline gives you a team of financial pros to manage your business’s back office—bookkeeping, tax filing,  AP management, spend management, and more. And we can deliver the expert CFO services you need to take your business to the next level.

If you’re ready to graduate from reactive accounting to strategic financial planning and decision making that drives growth, get in touch with a Hiline advisor to learn how we can help.


Further Reading

CFO Resources for Small Business Owners
CFO Resources for Startups
Outsourced vs Fractional vs CFO: Understanding the Difference

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