What is the Difference Between an Accountant and a Controller?

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What is the Difference Between an Accountant and a Controller?

Structuring your company’s accounting infrastructure is always a challenge, no matter your size or success level. One of the questions companies often find themselves asking is about the differences between controllers and accountants. Controllers and accountants are closely related, but the main difference between the two roles is the level of oversight controllers provide to their respective organizations. This article discusses the differences between an accountant and a controller. Though the two roles have differences, they are both integral parts of any accounting team. 

At Fully Accountable, we understand your business has unique accounting needs. That’s why our full-service team, equipped with digital accountants, controllers, and CFOs, can formulate a comprehensive accounting plan that suits your industry needs. Continue reading to learn about the differences between an accountant and a controller and how both are critical roles within your company’s financial infrastructure. 

Accountant Vs. Controller

Accountants and controllers mostly fulfill the same roles and responsibilities. However, a controller is a more senior position responsible for managing the firm’s accounting-related activities.

Junior accountants rarely hold controller positions and the vast majority of controllers hold at least several years of experience and various professional certifications. Additionally, most controllers start as public accountants and work their way up in corporate settings before earning the trust necessary to fulfill controller duties. 

What Is an Accountant? 

On the whole, non-controller accountants perform simpler accounting tasks than controllers. Some of these responsibilities include tax auditing, cost accounting, and internal reports. Every CPA also understands how to complete bookkeeping tasks and oversees other bookkeepers’ optimal performance. They work to prevent fraud and maintain the company’s financial report accuracy for co-workers, investors, creditors, and regulators. 

What Is a Controller?

Controllers, on the other hand, handle the entire accounting system for organizations. For smaller companies, controllers set up an effective accounting infrastructure. For larger companies, controllers act as an overseer. They are essentially the chief accounting officers for organizations and they play critical roles in organizing and executing accounting actions, ensuring everything runs smoothly. 

Controllers must also have some financial data analysis skills. Though they are not responsible for as many forecasting responsibilities as CFOs, controllers have to fulfill some forecasting responsibilities, particularly tax management. CFOs can also call on them to offer their perspective on investments, creditor relationships, or corporate governance. 

Companies might have a controller hierarchy, wherein a head controller has two or three controllers underneath them to issue guidance while creating directives. Assistant controllers are less experienced and spend more time on the day-to-day bookkeeping responsibilities such as data collection, regulatory and statutory reporting. 

Key Differences in Education and Skills 

Anybody with a background in finance, statistics, mathematics, or economics and a broad understanding of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) can complete bookkeeping duties. 

However, for more senior-level accountant jobs, candidates must have their CPA license. In many cases, they must also be a certified management accountant (CMA), a chartered financial analyst (CFA), or hold different accounting certifications. For senior-level positions, an average of three to six years of experience is preferred. Tax accountants or junior auditors might only require one to three years of experience. 

Financial Expertise

Experience is the best teacher, and controllers typically have more of it than accountants. While both positions have a foundational knowledge of accounting principles, controllers have seen the practical implications of that knowledge and use it to make profitable decisions for organizations. Accountants should have the same knowledge as controllers, but they simply haven’t put it to use yet. 

Generalist or Expert  

Accountants have the opportunity to hone their skills and decide their specializations. Controllers have to be experts in a wide range of accounting principles. As a controller, you have to analyze the accounting functions of the whole organization. Whereas accountants can focus on one process, controllers ensure the entire accounting team’s success. 

Data Vs. Information 

WIth controllers’ background in both accounting and business, they can provide input into forecasting and financial strategy. Accountants haven’t developed the experience to analyze financial data yet. They still focus on the accuracy, compliance, and reporting of that financial data. 

Controllers interpret the data and build it into something more useful that provides guidance and facilitates tangible benefits. The controller may use the data to develop and maintain a financial forecast incorporating cash flow projections and sustainable financial growth models. 

If the data points to inefficiencies, controllers can use the data to establish internal controls to improve the financial model or change the existing model. 

Bookkeeping Vs. Accounting Vs. Advisory 

An easier way to think about the accounting hierarchy is to separate the roles into three categories: bookkeeping, accounting, and advisory roles. 

Bookkeeping: 

Bookkeepers enter data into the company’s books and keep track of financial records up to date. They track all income and expenses, pay bills, respond to outstanding invoices, and track payroll, as well as ensure tax compliance. 

Accountant:

In smaller-to-medium-sized businesses, the accountant might perform some of the bookkeeping responsibilities. However, in larger companies, accountants perform more in-depth accounting procedures and have a higher experience level. Accountants typically oversee bookkeepers, perform billing, conduct larger ledger entries, review accounts payable activity, and operate payroll smoothly. 

Controller:

Controllers oversee the accounting operations of the entire organization. They manage the accounting functions, facilitate month-end close processes, and perform financial reporting functions essential to the business. 

The controller is the first level of advisory within an organization’s accounting structure. However, above them, the CFO provides an even larger advisory role. 

CFO:

What do CFOs do? The chief financial officer (CFO) projects the long-term financial picture for an organization. They help the company thrive based on their analysis and oversee the controller fulfilling their responsibilities. 

CFOs also oversee the business’s investment and capital procurement process. They analyze the company’s debt and equity ratio and take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the company. CFOs have to understand the company’s financial positioning within the broader context of their industry. 

Do You Need an Accountant or a Controller?

In most cases, businesses don’t exclusively need an accountant or a controller. They need a team of people focused on bringing sustainable financial results and implementing a solid accounting infrastructure. 

Hiring an accounting team brings credibility to your numbers. Controllers take the credibility and help you work with investors or run meetings with the board of directors. A full-service accounting team does more than simple bookkeeping. It implements and executes a financial strategy that brings continued success to your business. 

Conclusion- What Is the Difference Between a Controller and an Accountant?

The difference between an accountant and a controller is the level of oversight controllers provide organizations compared to accountants. Controllers ensure the accounting procedures for an organization run smoothly and uninterrupted. Accountants focus more specifically on one aspect of the business’s financial operations, ensuring proper reporting and compliance. 

At Fully Accountable, our full-service accounting team can provide you with the accounting infrastructure you need to sustain financial performance and predict future outcomes. Our accountants not only ensure compliance by overseeing your accounting infrastructure. We also provide future forecasting and strategy based on your company’s organizational needs. 

Contact us today to learn more about what Fully Accountable’s controllers and CFOs can do for your business. 

Heidi Cake

Heidi Cake

Author at Fully Accountable | 1-877-330-9401 | www.fullyaccountable.com

Heidi Cake is our Data Director. She studied at Indiana Wesleyan University with a degree in BS Strategic Communications and BS Leadership Studies and specializes in analyzing anything in her path and creating aesthetic appeal to visual documents. Heidi spent the first few years after college working in the non-profit sector on teams where she was handed anything that needed to be communicated creatively. She realized her most loved being able to communicate complex, abstract ideas which made her return to her love of numbers and data. Heidi brings an equally creative and analytical mind to the task of analyzing and communicating client data and statistics.