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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

Scale up with The CFO Centre

How to start building your “dream team” for helping your company Scale Up

Venture Capitalists, angel investors, bankers and private-equity managers may not agree on much, but there is one idea they share. They’d rather put their money behind a stellar management team even if it has a just-okay idea than put it into a brilliant idea implemented by a ho-hum management team.

If your company is seeking to break out of startup mode and into a period of aggressive growth, how do you go about building that stellar management team? You may need people with skill-sets, experience, and connections that are a few levels above those of the people who have helped you get this far.

It’s sort of like when you graduated from university and its pajamas-friendly environment and had to buy your first real ‘work’ outfit to start your “grown-up” wardrobe. What should be the first piece to add to your ‘collection’ of your management team that will take your company to the next level?

A CFO is the key to unlocking your future

You might think it’s best to start by recruiting top-level talent in Operations, Sales or R&D. And those functions are vital. But the foundation to it all is finance. Remember that “money makes the world go ’round.”

Looked at another way, a lack of money can stop your world from turning. What signs could exist to indicate that money issues might hold you back?

  • Your bank keeps calling to say that you’re close to violating your covenants on existing credit
  • Your head of Accounting shows up at your door a few too many times asking where the cash to cover payroll is
  • You don’t have a clear idea of what financial resources you have available in the near or long term, to fund working capital or investments
  • The account manager you’ve worked with for years gets transferred – and you find you have nobody at your bank to advocate for you

If you have the money issue solved, you’re free to implement your growth ideas – research new products, expand into new markets, offer new products to existing customers – confident that you have the financing to allow those ideas to happen. But how do you meet your financial needs in a way that works for your still-growing company?

3 ways to get the CFO you need

There are several ways to sweeten a cup of coffee – sugar, honey or a vast array of artificial and “natural” sweeteners. In the same way, there’s more than one way to get the financial expertise you need.

  1. Promote from within: You can take someone who knows your financial picture – your head of Accounting, say – and move this person into the CFO role. You need to be sure that the person has the right skills and connections, because what makes a good CFO is different from what makes a good Controller. And, you need to back-fill the role that this person was promoted from.

 

  1. Hire a CFO from outside: The second way involves hiring a full-time CFO from outside your organization. This person will come with the skills and connections you need, but at a cost – literally. The amount you must pay to attract top talent can throttle your company’s cash flow, exactly the problem you want to solve. And, top CFO talent may well be wasted on a midsize company. After the setting-up process is complete, your new CFO may get bored and start taking calls and meetings with search consultants.

 

  1. Hire a part-time CFO: This solution (which is one that The CFO Centre provides) can give you the best of both worlds. You get an experienced CFO, often with a track record in your industry, and you don’t need to pay anything like the salary and benefits package expected by a full-time employee. Many experienced CFOs like having a part-time position – it gives them the flexibility and work-life balance they want, while still being able to get the satisfaction of helping great businesses succeed.

Our experience at The CFO Centre is that any company can benefit from someone in the CFO role, whether it is part-time or full-time. How that role is provided depends on the circumstances.

Feel free to contact us to see what we can contribute towards your thoughts regarding your company’s future.

Why are scale-ups more valuable than start-ups?

What if Bill Hewlett and David Packard had never got out of that famous Palo Alto garage? If they’d stayed a two-person company, we likely would’ve never heard of them – and the history of Silicon Valley would have been very different. Instead, at its peak in 2011, Hewlett Packard had nearly 350,000 employees around the world.

There are many small startups of the size Hewlett Packard was back in that garage, and it’s important for governments to encourage entrepreneurs to start companies. But the economic value of entrepreneurship isn’t in two-person startups. It’s in “scale ups” – companies that have hit a growth curve. Scale-up companies have particular value because:

Reliable jobs: Scale-up companies create ongoing employment– not only in technology, but ranging from  marketing and sales, to production and support – and this creates more consumer spending to stimulate the economy and a larger tax base.

Skilled workers have a chance to shine: Successful scale-ups require leadership at every level as their organizations grow. Leadership can no longer come just from the top; it also needs to come from within.  As companies grow and scale, they require access to specialist skills and are able to offer secure, well-paid jobs to highly skilled professionals.  In turn, that keeps the knowledge and technical skills in the country while giving individuals the chance to build their professional and leadership skills as well.

Spinoff economic activity: Successfully scaled-up companies provide more than direct employment. They create spinoff activity, potentially creating new industries, and requiring increased activity from their own suppliers while supporting their customers’ growth.  In turn, both the suppliers and the customers become stronger businesses.

Technological advancement: They can gather the financial resources and skills to invest in developing and commercializing new technologies. Scale-ups can  also leverage the innovation and technological advancements coming from startups and bring them to a larger audience, helping other startups to also begin scaling.

Our book “Scale Up” quotes business guru and venture capitalist Daniel Isenberg, “One venture that grows to 100 people in 5 years is probably more beneficial to entrepreneurs, shareholders, employees, and governments alike, than 50 which stagnate at two years.”

This book points out that in many parts of the world including Canada, the focus for business growth is on helping start-ups succeed. People wanting to start companies find financial help, coaching, and other support through incubators and other institutions. “Scale Up” points out that startups are fun, exciting and sexy.

By contrast, the growth process is more of a hard slog. It’s not that common for a company to have a winning combination of a good idea or technology, along with the vision and determination, to grow past the “garage” stage into mid-size, scale-up stage. But when they do, there has not been the support network to help them successfully grow.  Governments and organizations are now recognizing the need to create an eco-system for start-ups to help enable them to Scale-Up.

The CFO Centre has worked with thousands of companies over the past 17 years. Using this experience and the experience of our clients in Scaling Up, we have identified the key attributes and requirements for a company to successfully Scale.  Over the next few posts, we will explore and explain our Scale-Up Framework. Because so many companies either fail or have trouble scaling, you need to have every possible advantage on your side.

So maybe you’re not working out of a garage, as Hewlett and Packard were when they started. But to follow their success path, you need to change your thinking from a startup mentality to a scale-up. Success isn’t a matter of predestination – HP’s founders hit many failures before they found what worked for them – but it does help to have a roadmap to help you on your journey.

The result is a company that is much more valuable when it comes time to move on to the next stage of your life and career.

Is your company ready for rapid growth and positioned to Scale-Up?

First mover advantage doesn’t go to the first company that launches, it goes to the first company that scales.”   – Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn

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