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Blog The difference between a CFO and a Controller

CFO vs Controller

The difference between a CFO and a Controller

If you’ve ever looked through a storage box holding clothes you wore as a child, you may have wondered, “How did I ever fit into something that small?”

Your company may be in the same situation. The equipment, personnel, and premises that fitted well when the company was starting out, may be constraining its growth as it matures.

One of the most pressing areas for change may not be your production system, office space or loading dock. If you find that cash shortages are constraining your business, if you don’t know if you can afford to expand your product offering, or you have no real idea which of your products are the most profitable, you may have outgrown your finance function.

Child-sized clothing might have fitted you well when you were small, and it could be that the financial system you had when your company was young, did what you needed it to do.  Most companies start out with the founder keeping track of everything, maybe with the help of a bookkeeper or accountant, later growing into a department with a controller at the head.

But there is a world of difference between the “controller” mindset and the benefits available through someone who is able to help you take your company to a higher level – a Chief Financial Officer, or CFO.

Having access to those skills is important. As noted in the CFO Centre’s e-book, How a CFO Centre top level part-time CFO can transform your business, a CFO brings enormous practical financial and strategic skills and knowledge to your company.

A report by the International Federation of Accountants[1]  quotes James Riley, Group Finance Director and Executive Director, Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd.:

A good CFO should be at the elbow of the CEO, ready to support and challenge him/her in leading the business. The CFO should, above all, be a good communicator — to the board on the performance of the business and the issues it is facing; to his/her peers in getting across key information and concepts to facilitate discussion and decision making; and to subordinates so that they are both efficient and motivated.

In this post, you’ll learn about the difference between a controller and a CFO, and why it may be time you made the change – and how you can do that without putting an undue cost burden on your company.

The controller mindset: accuracy, compliance, tactics

All companies need someone with a controller mindset, even if they don’t have that specific title on their business card. The controller watches the details, so you don’t have to. The controller focuses on making sure that financial records are accurate, prepares monthly financial reports, ensures payroll is made on time, invoices are issued and collected and ensures compliance with regulations.

Essentially, the controller manages the company’s books and records and is responsible for the transaction processing in a company and reporting on those transactions.  With the focus on recording and reporting on past events, the controller’s role is mainly backward-looking.

And just to repeat – you need someone who makes sure all of these issues are covered.

But your company, even if it’s small, also needs someone able to watch the big picture. And as it grows, that need becomes more acute.

By comparison, the role of the CFO is to provide forward-looking financial management.  It’s a proactive role since it is concerned with the company’s future financial success.

What are the signs that you may need more than what a controller mindset can provide? Maybe — if you need to understand the risks your company is facing, or you need to know which of several possible ways forward is best to improve performance or help you grow profitability, or it could be that you need to someone to help align the organization by establishing performance metrics and mindset throughout the organization, or perhaps you need to know how to finance your growth.

In short, you don’t just need someone to provide a utility function – you need a combination of coach/advisor regarding the resources you need to make your intended future happen.

The CFO mindset: big-picture, advisor, strategy

The role and responsibilities of a CFO have expanded in the past two decades, according to the International Federation of Accountants.  That expansion it says has been driven by complexity as a result of globalized capital and markets, regulatory and business drivers, a growth in information and communications, and changing expectations of the CFO’s role. Whereas the CFO was once seen as a company’s ‘gatekeeper’, he or she is now expected to participate in driving an organization towards its goals.

The CFO still has the responsibilities for overseeing the Controllers role in record keeping to safeguard the company’s assets and reporting on financial performance

By contrast with a controller, the CFO  expands that role to focus on improving the operating performance of a company, analyzing the numbers and presenting solutions on how to make those numbers better. This can include higher sales, lower costs or greater margins.

A CFO will focus on strategy, helping to shape the company’s overall strategy and direction, as well as a catalyst, instilling a financial approach and mindset throughout the organization to help other parts of the business perform better[2].

The controller looks to the short term, the CFO is long-term. The controller helps make sure your company is compliant with issues such as environmental reporting and taxes; the CFO helps you design and implement a strategy. The controller seeks to maintain what you have; the CFO helps you expand.

If your company is in a growth phase – or you want it to be in a growth phase, the controller has your back – and the CFO helps you move forward. It means together you can achieve better results, faster.

Feel free to reach out to us here at the CFO Centre. We’ll sit down and have a talk, even if it’s phone or video call, to get an idea of where you want to take your company, and what your options might be to support the growth you want.

Many of the issues in this post are covered in the CFO Centre’s e-book “Financial Reporting,” which goes into detail about the insights that you can gain from a CFO’s strategic view of your company’s financials.

[1] THE ROLE AND EXPECTATIONS OF A FD: A Global Debate on Preparing Accountants for Finance Leadership, the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), October 2013, www.ifac.org

[2] ‘Four Faces of the FD’, Perspectives, Deloitte, http://www2.deloitte.com

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