What is a Comptroller in Accounting?

The acting comptroller (which is slightly different from a financial controller) works in a high-level executive position in the financial services industry, either in the private sector or in state governments or federal government department or other government organizations within the United States. Someone working in this accounting position must have at least a bachelor’s in accounting, although a higher education, such as a master’s degree, will take them much farther. You can choose which degree to earn based on your career goals.

In some organizations, you’ll be high enough in the hierarchy that you’re just below executives in the C-suites, you may report directly to the cheif operating officer (COO) or the chief financial officer (CFO). You'll be a manager with considerable responsibility, overseeing the daily financial and accounting tasks within your organization. You are responsible for preparing different types of financial statements. These include balance sheets and income statements, each audit by an internal or excternal auditor, and income and expense projections. You may be responsible for reducing costs. Depending on your work experience, you may also provide your opinions on financial decisions or new opportunities for the company. You may also be asked to weigh in on the acquisition of a new company or other assets and review the planning of additional special training programs for employees on new technology, law, security, or other content.

The financial control officer or office of comptroller in companies often oversees other management accountants, providing various financial services and parsing financial information from all over the organization. They ensure the accounts department is filled with financial experts who perform accounting tasks accurately and with financial compliance to laws and regulations. They track data for profit and loss and accounts receivable and payable, perform internal control audits, are sometimes tasked with overseeing payroll, and follow all required financial reporting procedures to maintain fiscal responsibility.

Introduction and Overview

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If you’re a comptroller, you may work with one or more controllers as they evaluate financial spreadsheets, but you'll be above them in the company heirarchy. No matter how busy you are, you have to stay up-to-date on the company’s budgeting process. You'll be ensuring that the company operates within its budget. If the company has gone public with shareholders, you’ll spend much of your time communicating with these individuals.

You’ll have to understand the principles of accounting and business. For these responsibilities, the backing of a master’s in accounting or a master’s in business administration gives your advice and opinions much more weight. No matter your college degree, you'll likely want to spend time on continuing education courses to maintain certifications and to continue to learn soft skills. While math skills will come in handy in getting this far, you'll also need leadership skills and decision making ability, in addition to communication to continue succeeding and earn improved compensation for the work you do.

Typical Functions of a Comptroller

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This is a financial management position and your main responsibility is as a financial controller. You'll oversee the roles and functions of the bookkeepers, accountants, and controllers within their departments.

As a manager, you supervise the accountants as they prepare financial statements. In supervising the production of these documents, you also go through the balance sheets, looking for areas in which the company can save precious funds. If you notice that a department’s expenses in a particular category are different from other departments, you may look a little more deeply, checking for what is being bought in higher numbers and why.

Once you know where the money is going, you may intervene, helping the management in that department to identify areas where they can save money.

You should have knowledge of how the organization’s finances operate. Once you know this, you may be invited to management-level meetings regarding how the company should choose to spend its available funds.

Because you are so high in your organization, you are given responsibility for the development of reports that the government requires be filed every year. As you complete this work, you also make sure that all financial details are in compliance with national government regulations. You’ll also be responsible for the company’s internal guidelines and legal requirements. This is a major responsibility.

You may also be tasked with creating the financial procedures of your organization. This means you’ll take a major role in writing financial policy, which means you'll need to be constantly studying generally accepted accounting principles and keeping up with changes. You’ll also have to stay familiar with Securities and Exchange (SEC) reporting and International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) as well. If you’re working in a government agency, you’ll have to stay familiar and current with Government Auditing Standards (GAS).

In a small company, you’ll do everything from bookkeeping all the way up to the highest level of financial work. You may invoice customers, process payroll, manage cash flow, reconcile bank statements, and oversee risk management details.

If you work in a larger organization, you’ll be responsible for those in-between tasks including working as an accounting manager keeping up with accounting records and making sure that all accounting work complies with accounting standards. You may work as a Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

Possible Job Titles

As a comptroller, you may go by one of several titles, or you may have several titles that reflect the responsibilities. Some of these titles include:

  • Acting Comptroller
  • Financial Controller
  • Financial Control Officer
  • Financial Officer
  • Finance Manager
  • Business Manager
  • Administrator
  • Accountant

Under each of these job titles, you’ll also have varying job responsibilities. Where you work will affect your possible duties. As you become more familiar with the different expectations that each employer has, you’ll be able to decide for yourself where you would like to work. As you’re thinking about this, keep in mind your education, knowledge, experience, and professional strengths, and even professional organizations you beling to can all matter and affect your career path. For instance, you may find that you're better suited as a financial officer because of previous jobs with companies where you held a similar title. Or you may prefer working directly with numbers and spreadsheets. Knowing this, you’ll be able to tailor your educational program and job search in the real world more appropriately.

Job Duties

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In this position, you’re given responsibility for the financial health of your employer or company. You may be tasked with the investments your company makes, so that the money set aside for this purpose earns even more money. Your supervisor may also direct you to develop long-term plans for the company’s financial goals.

Because of how much you work with the numbers, investments, and the financial goals of your company, you’re also going to be responsible for overseeing the production of financial reports. Chief executives or the board may also request that you interpret them or explain statistics included in a report.

Expect to put in at least 40 hours a week, depending on the organization for which you’re working. You may work for a government agency, bank, or insurance company, among many others.

A Day in the Life of a Comptroller

Your work day may begin as you oversee the accounting department. Multitasking should be one of your biggest skills, as you’ll have to juggle several responsibilities almost simultaneously.

Even though you'll work mainly with numbers and spreadsheets, you should also be an effective communicator. Expect to speak to others in writing and in person. Know how you want to say what needs to be said, so that the message is as effective as possible.

Next, you may bury yourself in your employer’s investments, ensuring they are gaining, not losing money. From there, you’ll probably troubleshoot an error in a balance sheet. Because you aren’t involved in the daily financial transactions, you’ll be expected to have a strong idea of what is going on with the numbers the accounting department handles. Expect to be technologically savvy—much of the work you’ll do will be on the computer and may even include online, cloud-based software.

As you look at specific job responsibilities, these include establishing a budget, managing the accounting department, maintaining a good system of controls, overseeing the use of assets, keeping the chart of accounts and general ledger, supervising the accounting processes and transactions, ensuring that all policies and procedures are followed, helping out with audits, producing and completing financial reports, supervising accounts payable and keeping track of and reporting any fraud, waste, or abuse of your employer’s financial assets.

Education and Degree Options

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When you become a comptroller, you should have a bachelor’s degree in accounting from an accredited college or university; a graduate degree in either accounting or business will make you even more attractive to employers. An associate degree is not going to be enough to earn you a supervisory position in accounting. Passing the certified public accounting exam and maintaining CPA licensure may be an important step, or even be required.

Some agencies will hire applicants who hold certification as Chartered Financial Analysts or Certified Government Financial Managers. All professionals in this position are required to keep their educations current with continuing education hours; this is a requirement for annual licensure.

Certification, Credentials and Licensure

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Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree in accounting, and you have taken courses that lead to certification as a certified public accountant, Chartered Financial Analyst, or Certified Management Accountant, you’ll be able to apply for certification as a comptroller.

Two other avenues to this certification include becoming a Certified Government Financial Manager and Certified Internal Auditor.

With these certifications you can show your chops as you carry out duties and tasks assigned by the highest executives in your organizations. With this, you’ll be eligible for this position, with the knowledge you need to keep your organization’s finances and investments in the black.

You’ll also have to acquire the related management and organizational skills that enable you to encourage, motivate, and manage your team. By demonstrating that you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to get the work you need out of your bookkeepers and accountants.

If you’re still working on moving up in your organization, learn what you’ll need to do to advance into this role. The work of a financial controller is highly analytical; you’ll have to have a deep knowledge of both business and accounting concepts; enough that, if you begin to take on some of the responsibilities of this position, you can make the investment decisions necessary.

Can you look at your organization’s budget and develop realistic outcomes, then explain them to the C-suite executives? To do this well, you’ll need to understand how various accounting and budget processes work. You’ll also have to be able to explain how the numbers are calculated and any terms they don't immediately understand.

And you’ll have to develop your leadership stills. To do this, you can take managerial finance, business leadership, and behavioral studies courses.

It never hurts to seek out a more-experienced mentor, especially if you aren’t close to an educational institution that offers the classes you’ll need to take.

Evan all of this work won’t get the results you want right away. Instead, you’ll need to work, learn, and study for several years. Keep your eyes open to the different financial, accounting, and investment openings within your organization. As openings happen, apply to them and, if you’re hired, take in everything you can about each process. You'll be one step closer to where you want to be.

Keep one word in mind: experience. While you may hold some high-powered degrees, experience in the accounting field takes precedence over most degrees. If you’re fairly competent with computers and software, it’ll only help you to become familiar with financial management software. Most (if not all) accounting firms rely on accounting software packages. Learn a few of these, become comfortable with them and

demonstrate your ability in using them to create spreadsheets, balance sheets and other documents you need to carry out your daily accounting work.

Another possible pathway: work for one of the Big Four firms (PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Arthur Andersen). Work in at least one of these organizations, gain the knowledge and experience you need in the investment and accounting fields so that, when the time is right, you’ll be able to apply for a comptroller position with confidence.

If you are already working as an assistant to the comptroller in your organization, use this as a way into the comptroller’s office when the position is going to be vacant. Prove your value to the current comptroller by doing your work in whatever role you hold. Let the current comptroller know that, when you are ready, you’ll be able to take the reins. In this way, you’ll be able to show that you have the credentials necessary to the position.

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