What Is a Financial Controller? Everything You Need to Know

~ 9 min read | September 23

The responsibilities of a financial controller go beyond managing regulatory reporting and leading the accounting team. 

Financial controller’s job description has evolved over the years to become absolutely critical to the growth of a business. 

But how did we get here, and how can financial controllers succeed in today’s world? 

We have the answers to these questions and more. Let’s dive into what a financial controller is and what you need to thrive in your role as an accounting leader. 

What is a Financial Controller?

Finance controllers (sometimes known as comptrollers) keep day-to-day accounting operations in order and are in charge of preparing financial reports. They also oversee general financial management, lead the company’s accounting functions, handle expense management, and more.

In the past, it was more common for chief financial officers (CFOs) alone to lead the company’s finance strategy. These days, though, things are changing — the financial controller role isn’t just focused on business administration and accounting policies.

Now, it’s not rare to find successful controllers and CFOs collaborating closely on strategic planning. For example, they may work together to find ways to improve profitability and reduce unnecessary business expenses.

Ultimately, when these two are in sync, they can help a company achieve rapid growth and success. That makes the financial controller position more important than ever.

When do you need a controller for your business?

Young businesses typically have small finance departments, made up of a few accountants and bookkeepers. However, with more business success comes more complexities.

As a company expands, so will its revenue and geographies. During this growth stage, the business’s accounting needs will go well beyond a couple of bookkeepers’ available time and resources.

That’s where a finance leader comes in. The financial controller position is a senior role, held by someone with many years of experience in accounting. With an in-depth understanding of global taxes, regulatory compliance, and business law, they can help a growing company thrive. 

As a rule of thumb, businesses in the revenue range of $5-$10 million annually need to have an in-house controller to ensure bookkeeping, internal controls, sales tax reporting, and compliance are well-maintained.

Without a controller to help keep track of these things, a business will put its financial performance at risk — not to mention its legal and tax status. 

CFO vs. Finance Controller: What is the difference?

But if they work so closely together, what exactly separates the CFO from the financial controller? Well according to a research report by EY,

The difference between the CFO and the FC is that the financial controller is more like the financial operating officer. They ensure everything is running well, there are no surprises, and the audits are good. The CFO stays on top of the numbers but has a big external focus in positioning the company with investors.

Let’s dig a little deeper into how the roles of CFOs and financial controllers differ in scope, responsibilities, and evolving expectations:

Chief Financial Officer (CFO ) vs Financial Controller (FC)

As is apparent from the evolving expectations from both roles, you’re on the right track if you’re a financial controller who makes time for financial strategy.

Related ReadFrom Stewards to Strategic: How Can Controllers Make Time for Business?

Roles and Responsibilities of the Financial Controller

Now that we’ve covered biggest differences between a CFO and a financial controller, let’s dig a little deeper into the day-to-day of a controller. 

The primary responsibilities of a financial controller are:

  • Managing finance processes and accounting-related activities
  • Maintaining a healthy cash flow and profitability
  • Overseeing financial risk management
  • Ensuring accurate financial reporting and financial statements
  • Managing transactions such as accounts payable and receivables, payroll, and balance sheets
  • Ensuring timely book close processes 
  • Managing external auditors 
  • Staying on top of tax liabilities and compliances
  • Completing budget analysis and financial planning 
  • Supporting preparation of budgets
  • Keeping an eye on company spending 
  • Monitoring internal control policies

As you can see, there are many financial controller duties. However, in the last decade, the role has evolved to contain even more responsibilities. Let’s take a look.

Changing Responsibilities of the Finance Controller

A study by The Assocation of Accountants and Financial Professionals in Business found that the expectations on financial controllers are changing:

When we ask controllers what happened to their role in the past ten years, the vast majority said that the controller job is more important and more strategic… That’s a lot of change happening in just one decade.

As today’s CFOs become more involved in the business’s strategy, they are expecting financial controllers to join them as active contributors to strategic directives.

Not to mention, the global digital transformation of the past few years has opened up new, additional controller duties.

Here are some other factors that have affected evolving financial controller responsibilities: 

The factors causing the evolution of the role of finance controllers

Source

Here are some ways that the financial controller’s time and focus have changed over the past decade, as well: 

how the time and effort a controller needs to spend has evolved

Source

In this new world, controllers must free themselves from manual, error-prone processes to make time for financial strategy. 

Let’s take a look at what modern controllers can do to make this transition easy.

How Can Modern Financial Controllers Succeed at Their Job?

The role of a financial controller is always evolving, as we saw above. The good news? We’re here with a quick guide to becoming a strategic & successful financial controller:

1.Automate More Business Processes 

Your book-closing doesn’t have to take weeks of manual crunching. Your reporting doesn’t have to be time-consuming and error-prone, and you don’t have to spend time tracking the latest compliance requirements.

Automating these processes will save you hours of time each month. It will also make the entire process seamless and error-free. That’s time and brain space you can use for more strategic initiatives.

David Appel, Head of Subscriptions & SaaS Vertical at Sage Intacct, a cloud-based financial management software company, says that successful finance leaders get the following things right:

  • They automate the job, so the team can stop being manual and start being strategic.
  • Because they have the time and the financial information, they find strategic patterns or impactful insights on the data that nobody else had seen.
  • Finance teams can move from being tactical to strategic in their role. They become business model architects because they understand what is going well and what’s not.

Take Fishburners, for example, who saved 105 hours/month by automating their accounting and moved towards a strategic decision-making approach.

Our ‘accounts team’ have gone from doing admin billing work to proactively analyzing our revenue figures in Chargebee to create strategies to sustain revenue growth. This used to come from the top-down in the team. However, Chargebee has enabled the whole team from the bottom-up to move to data-driven decision-making.

-Ayush Patel, Finance Manager, Fishburners

This increased efficiency, but it also allowed Fishburners to scale globally.

Ready to automate your own accounting processes? Here’s some additional reading to help you get started: 

How you can automate accounts reconciliation

How you can automate compliance and taxes

2. Establish an Agile Techstack

The IMA study uncovered that having multiple ERP systems is the number-one technological challenge companies face. Many finance organizations are wilting under “ERP fatigue.”

While ERP systems are integral to your operations, they are tiresome because they do not talk to each other. For example, if your accounting system is not in sync with your CRM, accurately tracking all those discounts, coupons, and quotes for each customer in both systems is an operational nightmare!

A robust and well-integrated financial tech stack lays the foundation for future growth by providing scalable regulatory and reporting frameworks, data management, and automation.

The right tech can become the single source of truth your business needs to grow. As a strategic financial controller, you can play an active role in understanding the gaps in an existing stack and bring ideas for improved processes to the table. 

“The most important thing is how you can make better decisions than your competitors, and all of that comes down to picking the right tech stack for your financial team.”

-David Appel, Head of Subscriptions & SaaS Vertical at Sage Intacct.

Financial controllers need to leverage software like Chargebee that bridges such gaps with powerful integrations and makes your financial operations a breeze.​​

More on building a scalable financial tech stack for high-performing teams here.

3. Leverage Data and Communicate Effectively

Excellent interpersonal communication skills are essential for a financial controller to be effective within the finance team or with key stakeholders within/outside the organization. 

A large part of playing a strategic role within a company means you need to earn that spot by clearly communicating how and what the business needs to do to grow. The ability to forecast and drive data-backed decisions with robust revenue analytics will play a significant role in that.

It’s also crucial to set up smooth communication cadences with other departments like the revenue, sales, and marketing teams to ensure that important directives don’t slip through the cracks.

One of the ways controllers can add value while communicating to senior management and important stakeholders is to bring actionable and growth-oriented insights to the table that aid fact-based decision-making. 

The modern controller needs a single source of truth that could help highlight the right data and the right insights.

“When looking at metrics, a CFO considers three things; first is accurately reporting numbers, second is understanding trends, and the third important aspect is also trying to decipher what is influencing these trends.”

-Karthik Srinivasan, Senior Director of Finance, Chargebee

Setting up the right dashboards helps you watch business-critical metrics as closely and often as you need. 

This data is instrumental in experimenting with pricing models, financial analysis, capacity planning, and forecasting — and key to helping you become a successful, strategic finance controller. 

Make Way for Modern Controllers

With automation, technology, and seamless communication in the arsenal, your accounting becomes simpler, compliance and revenue recognition get easier, billing operations get streamlined, and you have real-time financial data at your fingertips.

Grab that seat at the table. You’ve earned it. Here’s a quick guide on four key areas you need to focus on while you’re at it.

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Nupura Ughade

I create, therefore I am. Always in search of (or writing) epic stories. Content Marketing Lead at Chargebee.