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What It Takes To Be A Successful Corporate Controller

corporate controllerWhat's a general consensus on a profile of a successful Controller?

Answers

Topic Expert
Keith Perry
Title: Consulting CFO and Business Operations A..
Company: Growth Accelerator
(Consulting CFO and Business Operations Advisor, Growth Accelerator) |

Anon,

I've seen two very disparate paths.
The current popular profile is a person with a strong accounting background. Definitely Big 4 experience, perhaps some divisional P&L experience, but could instead come from audit, treasury, etc. This person tends to have an emphasis on horizontal tasks (accounting, business process, SOX, audit, etc).
The other profile that I've seen in the past, and likely still exists, is a more managerial role. Probably an MBA or similar, more divisional P&L experience, a heavier project-focus (M&A analysis, etc), and more hiring / firing experience. This person tends to have more vertical authority, for example divisional P&L or the roll-up, and likely more FP&A and strategic roles.
It really depends on what the company needs; both bolstering the VP Fin/ CFO and filling their gaps, and structural orientation of the company.

If you're looking at career planning, I think there are two general options:
1) Find a company and find out the preferred path for them. At many there is a clear distinction as to which team feeds the controller slots.
2) Get your CPA, some big 4 exp, and then slot into the role. For a generic approach, that seems the popular default (I've seen non-CPAs insist on it, even though they had held the role themselves).

Oddly, I've known finance people to discover they love accounting, so decide to leave finance to become a controller (that operation had controllers under the accounting aegis). Similarly, I've seen people move towards controllership as it had more finance and less accounting involved.

Cheers,

KP

Anonymous
(Accountant) |

Thanks for the great insight KP!

Mark Matheny
Title: VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis
Company: Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)
(VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis, Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)) |

I think a successful Controller is one who gets engaged with the business and is seen as a contributor to the overall success of the enterprise. He/she is invited to participate in discussions outside of the pure accounting realm. Of course, this comes with the necessary balancing of sufficient internal controls and the resources needed to have them in place. The successful Controller also knows how to develop metrics that tie to the financials and can produce them accurately and in a timely manner. He/she is building a solid team with career growth for the "keepers." Finally, the individual should be outward looking as well. They should know what is going on in the industry and with their customers.

Mahendra Pattni
Title: Director, Financial Systems & Processes
Company: Rogers Corporation
(Director, Financial Systems & Processes , Rogers Corporation ) |

Interesting insight and the two profiles are quite contrasting style. Successful companies tend to focus on later type. Most CFO overlook business focused controllers when making hiring decisions.

Alan Hart
Title: Consultant
Company: Pacific Shine Group
(Consultant, Pacific Shine Group) |

Experience and practice shows that a successful controller must be able to quickly understand the real issues his or her organization has to deal with. They must be able to apply a practical and sensible approach to ensuring that accounting transactions are recorded per US GAAP rules (in the US), or simply put, in the correct accounts, in the right amounts and in the right account periods. In reality, this simplification is the end result of many processes and procedures; however, if the correct approach is employed, the vast majority of pieces will fall into place.

One good way to accomplish this is for the controller to focus on achieving maximal internal control via automated processes with the balance of the controls performed manually with proper review and approval, including evidence of such activities. This will translate into higher efficiencies in accounting and less exceptions and restatements.

My experience also shows that external audit fees are decreased as the controller functions tighten. It is interesting to note that in most cases all this can be achieved with lower accounting department expenses, due to increased efficiencies and much less work on exceptions.

Working with finance to implement a practical budgeting, forecasting and business intelligence solution should also be a top priority for a successful controller. Relying on IT and system automation, the controller can ensure that actual accounting data is immediately available to finance for performance analysis against budgets and goals.

Overall, I see the successful controller as someone who spends the majority of their time on implementing processes, procedures and tools and very little time on putting out fires.

ArLyne Diamond
Title: Owner - President
Company: Diamond Associates
LinkedIn Profile
(Owner - President, Diamond Associates) |

I'll tell you what doesn't.... someone who is over-controlling. I was consulting to a government agency and suggested a modification that would have saved them thousands of dollars, lots of time, and would have increased customer satisfaction and accountability. Because it didn't fit into her schema she nixed it. I next brought the idea to the CFO who appreciated it and we put it into practice when the controller was on vacation.

Anders Liu-Lindberg
Title: Regional Finance Business Partner
Company: Maersk Line Northern Europe
LinkedIn Profile
(Regional Finance Business Partner, Maersk Line Northern Europe) |

Let me ask you one question before answering:

Is being a controller your final career goal or are you aiming for that coveted CFO spot?

Sara Larsen
Title: Accountant
Company: BWS Inc
(Accountant, BWS Inc) |

Dear Mr Liu-Lindberg,
To answer your question, yes I am aiming for the CFO spot.

Anders Liu-Lindberg
Title: Regional Finance Business Partner
Company: Maersk Line Northern Europe
LinkedIn Profile
(Regional Finance Business Partner, Maersk Line Northern Europe) |

Dear Sara,

Then I would suggest that you try and look past the controller role and focus on what skills you need to become a CFO. The road to becoming the CFO is undergoing rapid change and Accountant turned Controller turned CFO is less and less typical.

There are already a few discussion on Proformative on this topic so would recommend you review these and then get back to the community if you have further questions.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

Anders -

While I believe that being a Controller is not necessary to be a CFO (or for that matter a CPA to be a Controller or a CFO a necessary evil), I am just not seeing the change (which I, again, agree with) becoming less typical.

While I believe a Controller should be an accountant, being a CPA besides passing some very difficult tests "once" is not usually the same OTJ training necessary to be a Controller in many businesses, especially in the SMB space.

Lastly, I find the non-accounting world doesn't really understand what a CPA is and isn't, and what they can and can't do as a CPA in a managerial role. I believe this adds to the misconception that one needs to be a CPA in a Controllership or CFO position.

Wayne

Anders Liu-Lindberg
Title: Regional Finance Business Partner
Company: Maersk Line Northern Europe
LinkedIn Profile
(Regional Finance Business Partner, Maersk Line Northern Europe) |

Wayne,

No one can obviously predict the future, but one can try and spot the trends. In my opinion the trend is that you need a much broader palette of skills to become a CFO these days than what the controller can offer. So while there are certainly still common skills between the two the Controller is no longer in line for the CFO spot per default. This is very important to consider when one as an accountant is planning ones career. If you are 5-10 years removed from a CFO position then you cannot rely at all on what is the best position to have to position yourself for a CFO spot.

While I am sure there are still many controllers that are moving into the CFO spot (it even happened at Apple I believe) then I would challenge those companies/finance organizations if they are actually getting value from their finance function.

Topic Expert
Samuel Dergel
Title: Director - Executive Search
Company: Stanton Chase International
LinkedIn Profile
(Director - Executive Search, Stanton Chase International) |

This is an interesting topic - partially because my book "Guide to CFO Success" has been recently published.

I had an opportunity in March to lead a panel discussion in Toronto to a "Controllers Congress" on the topic of "Controller to CFO". There were over 300 Controllers in attendance. When I asked the audience how many of them wanted to become CFO, I was mildly surprised to see that there were less than 10 hands raised. In response to Anders, I find it interesting that there are many Controllers that are not interested in becoming CFO.

Back on topic:

I always define success for a professional in two parts: Success in your career and success at your employer.

To be successful at your employer, no matter the role, an individual needs to know what is expected of them by all stakeholders and ensure delivery. It is the responsibility of the CFO (or whoever the Controller reports to) to make sure their Controller knows what is expected, just as much as it is the responsibility of the Controller themselves. Once these expectations are clarified, the Controller needs to have a plan on how they will meet those expectations.

Winging it, or doing it like last year, is not a winning option.

Career success requires thought, planning, development, and networking. Again, wishing it to be so doesn't make it so.

Hope this helps,
Samuel

Robert Meybohm
Title: Owner
Company: Meybohm & Bodell, LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Owner, Meybohm & Bodell, LLC) |

To be a successful in the role of controller, in my experience, one has to have a better than average understanding and interest in systems. If you don't have a full grasp and understanding of the business systems that aggregate the information and data that ultimately feed into the GL, it really does not matter whether one is competent in the understanding of GAAP or not. You have to know how these subsystems work; and what to look for when they are not working the way the ERP manual says that they should. These most likely means that you understand process flows, and are able to follow a transaction from start to finish. It can be helpful to have some auditing background, or an inquisitive nature so as to not get discouraged when something does not work the way it is supposed to. You will have to be able to work with and communicate with a variety of IT staff, so communication skills are quite useful.
I also think it essential that a person in this role have an essential curiosity and interest in the business; the products, and the customers, and the way everything comes together. Really, the controller should understand quite well how the entire operation works from the factory floor to the R&D labs to the shipping docks to the marketing department to the service department. If there is not that depth of understanding, it becomes difficult to understand and know whether the financials that are being generated make sense or not based on everything else that you know and observe. If a controller is not out and about and doing management by walking around, then they don't know how to do the job.......It goes without saying that a person in this job has to be excellent at training and developing staff, as you can't do all the work yourself. You need a team that pulls the weight with you. I would argue that technical expertise (GAAP), is probably one of the LEAST required elements to be successful in this role.....

Sara Larsen
Title: Accountant
Company: BWS Inc
(Accountant, BWS Inc) |

Dear Mr Meybohm, you're right on point. I have experienced management preference in the past. Because at that time my knowledge of the system was more vast than that of my Controller's, they decided to eliminate her role. Thanks for the reminder!

Anders Liu-Lindberg
Title: Regional Finance Business Partner
Company: Maersk Line Northern Europe
LinkedIn Profile
(Regional Finance Business Partner, Maersk Line Northern Europe) |

Robert,

Would you say that above skills will also get you to the CFO chair or only to the controller chair?

Robert Price
Title: CFO/Board Advisor
Company: Not Disclosed
(CFO/Board Advisor, Not Disclosed) |

Great comment! I would add that the Controller also needs to have a very deep understanding of Cost Accounting (if at a manufacturer) in addition to systems. Also, an outstanding Controller is also very good at FP&A, and has helped develop the KPIs of the business.

Next, I will echo your comment about understanding the business. The best Controllers I know, have a very deep understanding of the business. These Controllers have spent considerable time with the sales force; have met with customers; have spent time with the engineering team understanding the product; have spent time with marketing/product management understanding the market; have attended a number of tradeshows; have met with the top 10 - 25 vendors face-to-face; has visited every factory floor and distribution center; has answered phones at a call center, etc.

The challenge is to have a CFO/CEO/Owner who views the Controller as more than the Head Beancounter, but rather as another key member of the Team, and him/her to do all of these things, and establish relationships with all of these constituencies.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

Robert,

A good CFO also spends time with stake-holders, whether they are the maintenance crew, the sales force, the customer, vendors, etc.

But yes, both these positions need to be more involved with the actual, rather just the numbers.

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