Controllers are the advanced technicians of the accounting world, working at the top of the corporate pyramid, just below the chief financial officer. Win a controllership, and your duties will include preparing historical financial reports detailing your company’s financial position in income statements and balance sheets, and projecting future earnings and expenses.
“Your hand is on the pulse of everything the business does,” says John Brausch, CMA, CFM, CPA, who oversees the financials for 140 shopping centers as vice president, property controller for Edens & Avant. “Controllers run through a ton of data, and one of our key roles is to turn that data into information. It’s not just a matter of having numbers and knowing accounting rules -- it’s knowing what information needs to get to the company leaders so they can take the business where it needs to go strategically.”
Getting Started on the Path to Being a Controller
The typical controller starts his career with an accounting degree and an accounting certification, says John Rieger, CPA, director of financial accounting and reporting for the Association for Financial Professionals. Accountants who start in public accounting gain the experience required to sit for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation, while those who begin their careers in a corporate setting can pursue the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) designation.
“If you’re in public accounting and you’re doing audits of smaller companies, you may be able to go right into a controllership at one of your client firms,” Rieger says. “A graduate who goes to work as a staff accountant at a large company could move up there.” However, in a large corporation, many others will aspire to move up to assistant controller and then to controller, so you may have to move to a smaller firm to land a controllership job, he adds.
If you leap to a smaller firm to take a controllership, don’t expect your paycheck to increase. “In some places, a controller for a small firm may make less than a staff accountant at a large firm,” Rieger says.
A controller at a company with $500 million or more in sales typically earned $135,750 to $183,250, while a controller working for a $50 million firm earned $69,000 to $95,000, according to Robert Half International’s 2012 Salary Guide.
Geography also factors into salary. The salary of a controller in a high-cost area such as New Haven, Connecticut, might range from $152,040 to $205,240, while a controller in a lower-cost market such as El Paso, Texas, might make between $95,025 and $128,275, according to the Robert Half survey.
A few controllers take an atypical path through the finance department, moving up to controller from financial analysis or another less-direct route, says Miles Hutchinson, CPA, president of Soxpolicies.com, a Sarbanes-Oxley compliance software company.
Tool Kit to Succeed
A staff accountant needs technical and analytical skills. To move up to controller, you’ll need to add soft skills, such as the ability to think on your feet and to influence and report to company leaders in an enlightening and engaging way. Management and organization skills will help you handle issues that arise as you pull information from each department and transform it into consolidated financial information.
“There’s a hazing that takes place when you move to the controllership level,” Hutchinson says. “Many people who think they would make a good controller find they’re limited because their communication skills haven’t kept up with their technical skills, or they’re not prepared to be an equal member of the leadership team, because they lack the ability to persuade and inform.”
The best way to pick up controller skills is through the continuing-education classes required for CPAs and CMAs, says Brausch, who chairs the Institute of Certified Management Accountants’ Board of Regents. Studying for the CMA exam helps, because it tests three areas critical to controllers: technical accounting, business operation knowledge and strategic management. “In most controllerships, you’ve got to have a breadth of knowledge about management, economics of business, information technology and statistics,” he adds.
To polish your communication skills, join a civic or philanthropic organization, or try Toastmasters International, Hutchinson suggests. “Doing things like serving on philanthropic boards will get your communication juices boiling,” he says. At work or via a trade association, seek mentoring from a controller, CFO or treasurer who’s 10 to 15 years ahead of you.
Get Ready to Fight
While there’s competition among firms to find competent controllers, there’s also a lot of internal competition when an assistant controller or controller job opens. “You have competition, but the demand is there,” Rieger says. “Those with experience with controls and compliance are in demand everywhere.”