What’s the Difference Between a Comptroller vs. Controller?

Written by Amanda Bower    |    Published: January 30, 2023

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Chief financial officers (CFOs) and controllers have many of the same duties, especially regarding a company’s financial services. However, there are also some significant differences between the two, which makes it important for this duo to work together to ensure that the organization is on the best possible financial course.

Unfortunately, not every company realizes the importance of these positions and what they can mean for the business. In some instances, smaller companies may not even have the financial resources to hire a controller and a CFO. They may decide that one is better than the other, which is not necessarily true since each has specific roles.

That is why, in the below guide, we will go over everything you need to know about controllers and CFOs, including how to tell whether your company needs them, how these positions work together, what their respective duties are, and what to do if you cannot afford to have both of these positions in-house. Let’s dive in.

What Does a Controller Do? 

A controller is generally responsible for supervising an organization’s accounting department and daily accounting operations, such as payroll, accounts payable and receivable. This position also helps direct the company’s strategic financial plans and decisions, making it a vital part of maintaining financial health. 

For-profit organizations usually hire controllers and report to the company’s CFO, shareholders, and executives. However, when these controllers work for smaller companies, the organization may demand more versatility from the controller, meaning they will have to take on more roles. In comparison, if they work for a larger company, the business will likely disperse some of the job responsibilities to other employees, including the treasurer and CFO.

What Are They Responsible For?

The role of a controller will typically depend on the organization they are working for. However, in general, controllers are responsible for having a solid understanding of a company’s job functions and accounting operations. 

They are also responsible for the following:

  • Reconciling the company’s accounts
  • Coordinating and performing audits
  • Preparing financial statements, as well as financial forecasting reports
  • Maintaining records, such as accounting, payroll, taxes, and general ledgers
  • Assisting with the preparation of budgets and maintaining them
  • Recommending financial performance benchmarks
  • Overseeing receivable departments and accounts payable
  • Communicating with top executives and the CFO and reporting to them
  • Verifying income tax compliance
  • Creating thorough financial statements
  • Managing the accounting department
  • Verifying that all the financials comply with the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)

Finally, staff management duties are also a part of the controller’s job, which means that depending on the organization, the controller may be the only accountant in the company. 

What Does a CFO Do?

The CFO is a senior executive responsible for managing a business’s financial actions. The CFO role is usually similar to that of a controller or treasurer because they are responsible for supervising the accounting and finance divisions and ensuring that the organization’s financial reports are completed on time and are accurate. However, their job goes one step further since this position also acts as a senior finance leader and makes critical strategic decisions to help the company grow. 

What Are They Responsible For?

Although a CFO’s responsibilities will often differ depending on the company, this position typically includes the following core duties:

  • Creating a solid accounting and finance team
  • Making sure that expenses and revenue stay in balance
  • Overseeing the financial planning and analysis functions
  • Providing input regarding mergers and acquisitions
  • Securing funding for the company
  • Working with other departments to review and analyze financial data and create budgets
  • Verifying that reports are accurate
  • Discussing financial strategies with the board of directors and the CEO

Additionally, this position helps set the company’s technology direction and make recommendations regarding everything from the organization’s marketing to its supply chain based on industry knowledge.

Do They Often Work Together?

In many organizations, the two will work together if there is a controller and CFO. Typically, the controller will report to the company’s CFO, and in more prominent organizations, the controller may also help the CFO with specific financial duties, such as preparing operating budgets. 

While this means they will usually have to work together closely, it is important to understand that each role has different duties that need to be performed within the organization. 

Does an Organization Need Both?

Because each of these roles is a critical part of an organization, more successful businesses have both a controller and a CFO. Failing to have these positions can cause:

  • The organization to have serious money issues
  • Inefficiency in the company’s operations
  • Inaccuracies in the company’s data
  • The organization to lack direction when it comes to its future
  • Reporting problems
  • Several other deficiencies, which can lead to costly challenges and countless problems for the organization

Plus, while some of the work may overlap between a controller and a CFO, some significant differences are outlined below.

Accounting vs. Finance

Controllers are accounting experts and must stay up-to-date on all the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and tax rules. They are often CPAs or hold similar licenses, and their role is very technical and precise. CFOs usually operate on a broader finance scale and deal with various duties, including financial planning and investing.

Procedures vs. Strategy

Controllers are focused on accuracy, ensuring procedures are adhered to, and meeting deadlines. Their work is often based on financial matters that need to be resolved weekly, monthly, and quarterly. On the other hand, while CFOs have to focus on what is happening right now, they also need to direct their attention to the future and where the company is heading, making sure to set long-term goals for the company. 

Internal Processes vs. the Market

Controllers are in charge of disseminating, monitoring, and developing internal controls that will help protect an organization’s assets and ensure that fraud and errors are detected. As a result, these controllers have to know the workflow of the company and its internal process completely, as this information helps them make the critical decisions that can help the business grow. 

However, CFOs usually leave these internal matters to the controllers since they spend most of their time investigating the market, determining what investment opportunities the company should look into, and what possible partnerships and acquisitions may be in the company’s future. 

The Face of the Accounting Department vs. the Face of Financial Operations

A controller is the face of the accounting department, as they are responsible for educating and enforcing accounting policies while ensuring all the accounting functions run smoothly. Yet, while the CFO is usually in charge of financial operations, they are also the official voice and face of the company when it comes to the press, analysts, the general public, and, if required, the board of directors.

Do They Work Together?

Controllers are responsible for operating tactically, making sure that financial statements and accounting reports are accurate. However, more importantly, they are focused on historical accounting and reporting, meaning they are looking backward to focus on what has happened based on the data. In comparison, CFOs are forward-thinking. They focus on what is coming, what changes need to be made, and what can be done that is best for the company. 

As a result, both positions need to come together if an organization wants to identify issues and opportunities and put the company in the best financial situation it can be in.

The Bottom Line

Knowing the difference between a controller versus a CFO will help you make the best decisions for your company. However, if you cannot afford both of these high-level positions in-house, outsourcing may be an excellent option for you. 

Outsourcing your organization’s controller’s needs or a CFO’s job duties, as long as they are not actively raising funds for the business, can be the solution you require to obtain the services of these highly experienced financial professionals without the costs involved, including their salaries and benefits. 

More importantly, you will not have to tackle outsourcing these positions alone. When you work with hiline, not only can you get services that can help grow your business, such as accounting services, virtual accounting solutions, monthly financial reporting, bookkeeping, tax, HR, and payroll services, but our financial services can ensure you are ready to fuel your future. 

For further information about the controller and CFO services and how our company can help you, check out our cloud accounting services today for further details or check out our FAQs for tech startups.

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