Makings of a Modern Financial Controller: What Does it Take?

~ 8 min read | December 9

On the surface, the role of the financial controller might be easy to define. A quick google search will give you a lot of information on what the job description entails.

Why am I writing this blog then, you may ask?

Because there’s more to it. Financial controller’s job descriptions won’t tell you how the role has evolved over the years. You see the “Hows,” but the “Whys” are missing – why and how did this change happen? Why are strategic controllers critical to the growth of a business? How are the responsibilities different from those of a Chief Financial Officer?

This blog compiles insights from finance leaders to decode what it takes to be a modern controller.

But first,

What is a Financial Controller?

Finance controllers (sometimes known as comptrollers) keep the day-to-day accounting operations in order. They head the financial management and the accounting function, ensure book-closing & accurate reporting, review the business’s expenses, and find ways to improve profitability.

Finance controllers also work closely with CFOs. CFOs play a key role in strategizing for the organization’s future growth. Interestingly, today, controllers are increasing their strategic focus to earn a seat at the big table and actively contribute to its growth.

When Do Businesses Need a Controller?

A business just starting out has a small team of accountants and bookkeepers. But as the company grows, so do complexities. The business expands both in revenue and across geographies. At this stage, the accounting needs are well beyond a couple of bookkeepers’ available time and resources.

Finance controllers are senior accounting experts who can navigate complex global taxes, compliance, financial planning, and forecasting.

As a rule of thumb, businesses in the revenue range of $5-$10 million need to have an in-house controller to ensure book-keeping, internal controls, and compliance are in place.

CFO vs. FC: What is the difference?

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 FCs 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 how the responsibilities of the controller differ from those of a CFO, let’s take a closer look at the scope of financial controller duties and responsibilities:

  • Managing and supervising accounting processes
  • Maintaining a healthy cash flow and profitability
  • Financial risk management
  • Managing transactions such as accounts payable and receivables, payroll, and balance sheets
  • Ensuring timely book close process and accurate financial reporting and financial statements
  • Managing external audits by CPAs (Certified Public Accountants)
  • Staying on top of tax liabilities and compliances
  • Assisting budgets and ensuring adherence to them
  • Monitoring internal controls and policies

That’s the whole spread of responsibilities a controller typically has. However, in the last decade, the role has been evolving continuously.

Changing Responsibilities of the Finance Controller

A recent IMA study, ‘Evolving Role of the Controller,’ noted that:

 “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.”

There’s no denying that book-closing and reporting are critical to business operations, but a modern controller needs to find efficient and error-free ways to do this.

As a result of CFOs taking on a more strategic role, today’s CFOs require financial controllers to be active contributors to strategic directives. Additionally, the digital transformation at warp speed has also opened up new avenues to change the controller’s role.

Changing Role of Finance Controller

Source

In the last decade, this is how the time and effort a controller needs to spend has evolved:

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

Source

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

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?

There are three ways to become a strategic & successful financial controller :

1. Automate

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 about a lot of time every month. It also makes the entire process seamless and error-free. That’s time and mind 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.

Here’s a quick starter for you to start thinking about automation:

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. It becomes the single source of truth your business requires. A financial controller must play an active role in understanding the gaps in an existing stack.

“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.

It’s also crucial to set up smooth communication cadences with other departments like the revenue, sales, marketing, etc., 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.

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.