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As head of the accounting department, a controller is responsible for managing the finances of an organization. The average controller salary is between $110,000 and $180,000 per year, though this wide range is affected by factors such as experience, company size, scope of role, industry, and more.

Today we’re sharing the specifics of the controller role, controller salary, and functional relationship of controllers to the rest of the company. 

What is a Controller?

Generally, a controller will take the lead on daily financial operations of a company. They’re dealing with the practical application of funds. 

Their job might include 

  • Overseeing accounting 
  • Payroll
  • Accounts payable
  • Accounts receivable
  • Cash flow
  • Short term finances
  • Emergency financial situations

A controller will likely be responsible for creating financial reports and projections, as well as maintaining records and preparing for audits. At your company, the controller may weigh in on budgets or make other recommendations to higher level executives. On the other hand, at a smaller company the controller may essentially operate as the CFO (chief financial officer) role in its entirety. 

Top priorities for a controller are people, reporting, and efficiency, as reported by Parker + Lynch.

People: Controllers need to see beyond numbers that accountants work with and focus on developing financial teams. Controllers may interview and hire accounting staff and implement training for individuals.

Reporting: accurate reports are essential for the healthy functioning of a company. A controller will likely be responsible for building reports that are helpful for the executive team, and any other groups that need up-to-date financial information. Controllers know how to construct reports that create meaning out of numbers. 

Efficiency: Controllers are tasked with keeping the accounting of a company running with precision and efficiency. Controllers will need to be well-versed in technology and modern accounting, as well as basic growth and marketing principles.

Where Does a Controller Fit in an Organization?

Generally the role of Controller would fit as the head of an accounting or finance team, reporting to the executive team. In many companies the controller manages accountants and reports directly to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). However, this organization is not always the case. In many of the hot technology startups and other small or growing companies you may find that the Controller role is simply filled by a CFO or CEO. In a very large and/or corporate environment, a controller might function as a web with assistant controllers targeting specific subgroups of the financial load. It all depends on the size, needs, and financial impact of the company.

The controller is unique in that it requires more management and “soft skills” than a traditional accountant. In addition, a controller needs to have more experience and application than your average accountant to be able to make far-reaching decisions and use financial foresight. But the role of controller also often exists between the lines of accounting and the executive team to take some of the day-to-day functioning off the plates of a busy financial executive.

Job Responsibilities by Role

Chief Financial Office/Finance Executive
Financial Planning Risk Management Financial spokesperson Data Analysis Funding & Forecasting
Controller
Manage accounting team Day-to-day finances of company Reports Recommendations Creating budgets
Accounting
Manage transactions & accounts Maintaining records & databases Following budgets

As a Chief Financial Officer you may be considering adding or expanding a controller role in your company. It’s important that you consider the needs of your organization and fit the role of controller to those needs. Maybe the executive team needs to take day-to-day operations off their plate. Perhaps the accounting teams need more management and talent development. A financial overhaul of budgets might necessitate a shuffling of duties on your finance teams. A controller can fill a role that overlaps with management, human resources, and accounting.

How Much Does a Controller Make?

There are a lot of factors that go into the controller salary and compensation package. As a controller, there is usually more responsibility and management expected than an accountant so one can expect a higher controller salary to reflect that. Current market information from Robert Half suggests that a controller salary falls between $110,000 and $180,000 per year. Corporate controllers fall on the higher end of the scale, while assistant controllers and those at smaller or finance-light firms will find themselves on the lower end of this range. 

Certainly other factors may combine to adjust this controller salary estimate. Experience and formal training can make a big difference in a compensation package, as well as any options or benefits that your company may offer to balance financial compensation. Finally, the local market can dramatically affect a controller’s salary, with factors such as cost-of-living and competing markets.

TRY THIS: You may be able to better estimate controller salary by adjusting relevant factors such as experience, location, direct reports, and others here.

Calculating Controller Salary

Are you paying your controller the right amount? It’s hard to say. Typically the controller will fall between accounting and executive tracks. As a Chief Financial Officer you may want to reexamine what you’re paying your controller, or you may want to get a salary package ready to hire for a controller position. It’s best to begin with your accounting team. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a CPA is around $70,000, but your most experienced CPA is likely making more than that.  Your controller will be taking on more responsibility and management, so their compensation track should be above this salary range. Controller salary ceiling will likely be at or just under the executive team. The BLS lists executive salaries between $100-190,000, depending on the type of role (general, operations, chief).

EXAMPLE

If your best paid accountants are making $80,000 and your Chief Financial Officer is making $165,000, then you might consider paying your controller between $100-145,000 for reasonable compensation. Within that range you have freedom to balance or negotiate the package with benefits, options, perks, and other factors.

Is a Controller Role Right For Me? 

One of the biggest questions around the role of a controller is if it’s the kind of role you may want to consider for a career move. Could you be a controller? There are significant advantages to moving into a controller role, along with increased responsibilities and complexity.

Characteristics of a Controller

  • Strong accounting background
  • CPA certification + MBA degree
  • 6-8 years of practical accounting experience
  • Extensive tax, SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), and current legal knowledge for publicly traded companies
  • “Soft Skills”
    • Clear communication
    • Teamwork
    • Leadership
    • Ability to foster trust and communication between teams and levels
    • Managing staff
    • Problem solving & creative solutions

A controller role might be right for you if you find yourself looking for more leadership and responsibility in your organization beyond your current role. Are you looking for ways to bring more financial direction to your company? Would you like to help train, teach, and lead newer accountants? Do you want to see more on the executive side of the business? Are you looking for a bigger challenge and compensation to reflect that?

The Route to Controller

When considering a career move to controller, the first step is always research. Does your company have a role for controller? If not, could it benefit from a controller role? Are competing companies utilizing a controller? What are controllers in your field, at comparable companies, making? What are the comparable job descriptions for a controller role? 

If you’re personally interested in a controller role, take a hard look at your resume. Do you need to pursue an MBA? You may consider taking on more responsibility in your current job or asking someone in a more executive role to mentor you. Soft skills can be learned and practiced in any role, such as building relationships, improving communication, teamwork, time management, and resourcefulness. 

Similarly, a controller role can be cultivated by grooming a promising accountant or finance team member through those aforementioned steps. A Chief Financial Officer can help build a strong candidate to meet the specific needs of the company, training the individual for the exact role responsibilities.

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