What Does a Controller Do?

What Does a Controller Do

Financial controllers have traditionally acted as subject matter experts. In the past, their job involved guaranteeing the accuracy of books and financial reporting, and rarely extended beyond that. But this is no longer the case; today’s controllers are becoming more proactive and playing an increasingly central role in the growth of the business. In this article, we’ll dive into the responsibilities of modern financial controllers and the key skills they need to succeed.

What Is a Financial Controller?

A financial controller is the head of a company’s accounting department. They supervise accounting activities and ensure the accuracy of financial books. Today, the controller is often also the point of contact between other departments whose activities affect company finances. This includes extensive interaction with operations, sales, supply chain, FP&A, and more.

The controller plays a vital role in the organization, as financial data drives the entire business. They influence decision-making, forecasting, and budgeting, which all affect the overall direction of the company.

Financial Controller Duties and Responsibilities

The roles of the controller and the CFO sometimes overlap in small companies. The controller may take on the CFO’s responsibility to interpret and analyze numbers for management. In this case, they’re a crucial link between leadership and finance to support strategic decision-making.

Today, many controllers are expected to step into the CFO’s shoes and help guide the company’s growth. Here are some of the areas in which their role is evolving to help businesses thrive.

Critical Problem Solving

Controllers have traditionally delivered numbers to CFOs to facilitate insights—but today they need to take charge and drive insights themselves. Controllers have instant access to key financial information that they can analyze to gain these insights, which can then be used for high-level financial planning. This process can help improve risk management and inform the C-suite about possible issues, which can then be addressed before they lead to crises.

Creating a Lean Finance Team

Since the pandemic, many businesses have shifted their focus toward operational efficiency. According to Gartner, 81% of businesses have reorganized within the last year.

To support efficiency, today’s controllers are focusing on reducing waste and boosting productivity. This process starts with mapping out workflows to find opportunities to go lean and digitize processes. For example, many repetitive bookkeeping tasks can be streamlined or automated. The time and resources saved can then be dedicated to more productive purposes, like in-depth forecasting.

Facilitating Remote Accounting

Many modern businesses have embraced either fully remote work or a hybrid model, which means controllers are now managing teams that are working from home. As a result, they’re often taking the lead when it comes to digital transformation.

Controllers play a major role in informing management about the need for an evolving operating model based on technology. They often advocate for shared services and automation tools, such as spend management solutions.

Centralizing Data for Quick Decisions

For a long time, most finance departments worked in silos. Countless hours were wasted entering the same data into multiple books; creating reports was a laborious process; and financial decisions had to wait until the end of the month or quarter.

All of this has changed, thanks in part to the evolving role of controllers. They’re now leading the charge to centralize data, standardize processes, and prioritize real-time visibility into finances. These changes rely on digital solutions that help controllers stay on top of spending, optimize efficiency, and make informed decisions.

Key Skills for Financial Controllers

In order for a controller—and their department—to be successful, they must have an appropriate skill set. This includes extensive financial expertise and excellent management abilities, among many other elements.

Because the controller’s effectiveness directly affects the success of the business, it’s essential for them to excel in these areas. Let’s explore a few key skills that today’s controllers need to master in order to foster success.

Financial Analysis and Reporting

A controller must be able to look at financial data and see more than just numbers; they have to be able to find patterns, analyze trends, and use these insights for strategic decision-making. Reporting and analysis are at the heart of modern accounting departments, and the controller must lead the way with a keen eye for detail and a thorough understanding of financial data.

Leadership and Communication

The controller is the primary internal contact for the accounting department, and may also be the external contact for a smaller business. Considering this, they need to be able to communicate effectively, manage other employees, and take responsibility for the reports and analyses generated by their team. The controller needs to get to know the people they work with and effectively motivate them to maintain the accuracy and integrity of company finances.

Strategic Planning and Decision-Making

For modern companies, financial data is a key component of strategic planning and decision-making. Since the controller is responsible for this data, they play a major role in determining the direction of the company. Controllers often present financial findings to executive leadership teams to help them make decisions. They must be able to confidently advise management on forecasting, budgeting, and other aspects of planning based on financial data.

Spend Management

The controller must understand spend management in order to improve the company’s bottom line. The goal is to maximize the value of the company’s resources and keep costs as low as possible without negatively impacting the business. The controller should use expense reporting to understand spend data and make decisions accordingly.

Risk Management

The controller is responsible for managing risk by implementing internal controls, and ensuring that financial data is accurate so that it can be used for forecasting and analysis. They’re also the primary contact for both internal and external financial audits, so they must have a complete understanding of relevant risks and how to minimize them.

The Difference Between Controllers and Accountants

The role of an accountant differs significantly from that of a financial controller in terms of the level of responsibility, oversight, and ownership of financial data. An accountant may specialize in a specific area such as cost accounting, tax accounting, or auditing, or they might work across various functions in a simpler capacity.

A controller, on the other hand, is responsible for the entire accounting department. They manage other employees, oversee all areas of accounting, and serve as the point of contact for executive leadership. Most controllers have extensive expertise in the field, as companies usually require 8–10 years of experience for the position.

Many controllers start out as accountants. For example, they might go from staff accountant to senior accountant, then to assistant controller, and finally to controller. Following this path allows them to understand the accounting department from top to bottom.

The Difference Between Controllers and CFOs

While controllers are taking on more responsibility, there are still important distinctions between their role and that of the chief financial officer. The CFO is accountable for the entirety of a company’s financial standing, while the controller is mainly responsible for overseeing financial data from the accounting department.

The CFO handles financial strategy, which includes overall market analysis, equity structures (if applicable), acquisitions, and other high-level financial decisions. They’re also the primary financial advisor to the CEO. Because of the added pressure and responsibility, a CFO generally earns a higher salary that’s consistent with the executive-level position they hold.

That said, the controller and the CFO have a very close business relationship. The controller often reports directly to the CFO, and is responsible for passing on all relevant financial data that the CFO may need to do their job.

Final Thoughts

In today’s dynamic business environment, the role of controllers is constantly evolving. They’re increasingly responsible for making strategic decisions and directly supporting executive leadership, as well as optimizing operations and increasing efficiency within the finance department.

For financial controllers to do their job effectively, they often need support from digital solutions. Tools like Mesh can automate expense reporting, invoice management, and other critical processes to free up the accounting team for more valuable tasks. This ensures that data is accurate and reliable, empowering the controller to generate essential insights and help guide the company toward a successful future.

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