What is a controller?

A controller, also called a financial controller, directs and plans the preparation of reports that summarize and forecast business activities and financial positions in areas of income, expenses and earnings based on past, present and expected operations. They oversee and regulate corporate funds and accounts, establish budgets, approve expenditures and provide guidance to ensure the financial solvency of the companies in which they work.

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What does a controller do?

The day-to-day responsibilities of a controller will vary significantly depending upon a company’s size.

In larger organizations, controllers generally focus on the “control” aspect of the job, monitoring corporate accounts, reviewing financial statements and implementing internal policies and procedures to ensure solvency. Different business units, brands or even departments may have their own individual controllers, and the controllers typically supervise junior controllers who perform administrative duties (conducting analyses, filing reports, etc).

In smaller, leaner organizations, a controller's job description includes many of the responsibilities of junior controllers and take on additional duties typically handled by other members of the accounting and finance workforce. For example, they can perform accounting functions, bookkeeping, and coordinating month- and year-end closing activities. In companies that offer products, controllers may oversee sales and marketing functions to establish prices, monitor inventories, evaluate potential revenue steams, recommend product improvements and implement policies to drive market share. In some cases, a chief executive officer performs the duties of a controller.

Related jobs: Junior controller, financial controller, senior controller, corporate controller, financial manager

Big-picture priorities for controllers.

To be a successful controller, you must continually add value to your organization beyond your day-to-day tasks. In their comprehensive report, “The changing role of the financial controller,” Ernst & Young recommended four universal priorities for controllers to do just that.

These priorities include:

  • Finding and developing talented people: Recruiting skilled staff is rated as the top priority – and the top challenge – facing controllers, as the pool of candidates with requisite skills is running shallow. Controllers that can build and implement effective recruiting plans can position their companies for success in this competitive landscape.
  • Improving reporting: Management reports must be aligned with business strategy in order to provide the insight and visibility necessary to affect positive change. The most successful reports include non-financial key performance indicators, more incisive commentary and are maintained via automated software.
  • Getting the basics right: If your numbers aren’t accurate and your controls aren’t sufficient, you can’t succeed or drive business improvements.
  • Improving efficiency: CFOs and CEOs today demand maximum return on investment, and back-office functions are often charged with “doing more with less.” Thus, controllers today must be adept with technology and comfortable working in a shared-service environment.

Essential skills for controllers.

In the Ernst & Young report, financial controllers identified these skills as the most important to achieving success:

  • Communication skills
  • Basic understanding and acumen
  • Leadership skills
  • Ability to influence management
  • Technical accounting expertise
  • People skills
  • Ability to commission, deploy and monitor effectiveness
  • Efficiency and time management

Controller salaries and employment outlook.

With an average annual salary of $190,713 (according to our internal job placement and salary metrics) controllers are among the best-paid professionals in accounting and finance. Your salary may vary for a variety of reasons. For instance, company size can greatly influence salary offers – controllers at small companies earn about $129,699; at mid-size firms they earn about $156,438; and at large companies they take home roughly $239,620.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of controllers and financial managers will climb steadily until 2020. This growth will be spurred by a growing economy, increased globalization and an intensifying demand for financial expertise.

Required education and professional experience for controllers.

When recruiting or promoting controllers, companies require candidates that possess at least 15 years of direct experience in an accounting, auditing or finance role.

At a minimum, a bachelor’s degree in accounting, finance, business administration, math, economy or a related field is expected. However, holding a master’s or other advanced degree is preferred.

Lastly, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license is not typically required. However, having one can set you apart in this highly competitive field.

Common controller job interview questions.

Though every job interview, and every interviewer, is different, there are some questions that you can expect to hear, so prepare for them in advance.

  • What are the most important factors to consider when developing an overall financial strategy?
  • Who in the organization do you leverage for insight and opinions?
  • When you encounter pushback from other stakeholders, how to you resolve that conflict?
  • How do you balance growth strategies versus cost containment?
  • How have you helped accountants and other junior-level staff develop and advance in their career?
  • How do you keep your team motivated, engaged and productive?
  • What ERP and other technology platforms are you familiar with?
  • Have you prepared and presented reports for executive managers in the past? How have you done it?

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