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Job Title CFO vs. Controller vs. Finance Director what is the proper pecking order

(N/A ) | Sep 4, 2013

I am helping out a colleague who is trying to fill an opening in his company. It is a retailer doing over 25M. The current person that is leaving holds the title of Finance Director. Previously the position was CFO but it was felt that the company really wasn t large enough to have a CFO. The next level that reports to this position holds the designation of Finance Manager. The current person has really been more of a Financial Analyst and he wants to get a more rounded individual. The question is should he stay with the Financial Director title or change to the title of Controller. He wants to use what will be perceived as the higher level of the two.

Answers

(CFO at AnswerLab, LLC ) | Sep 5, 2013

This is a tricky question. CFO is clearly the top title. Finance Director and Controller positions are often paid about the same, all else being equal, and the titles are often used interchangeably, and often incorrectly. In my experience, Finance Director is often used when the Controller title would really be more appropriate. This is the case when the incumbent’s primary responsibilities are accounting. Both roles can exist in the same company. First and foremost, the Controller is the chief accountant. Depending on the complexity of the accounting processes and policies applicable to the organization, it is possible that a “heavy hitter” may be needed in the Controller position, and that may necessitate paying much more for that role than for the Finance Director who might be sitting in the office next door. Conversely, if the complexity of the finance functions warrant a heavy hitter in that role — say, if there’s a lot of financing or M A activity going on, lots of strategic planning, maybe foreign currency hedging, significant risk management — then the company may have to pay up for the Finance Director. It all depends.

Below are the job definitions from salary.com. For reasons stated above, I disagree somewhat with including overseeing the accounting function as a role of the Finance Director. If the accounting is pretty simple, then sure, the Finance Director can oversee an Accounting Manager. Otherwise, though, accounting belongs to the Controller.

Finance Director:
Directs an organization’s financial policies. Oversees all financial functions including accounting, budget, credit, insurance, tax, and treasury. Typically represents the 2nd most senior finance executive. Typically requires an advanced degree with at least 10 years of experience in the field. Familiar with a variety of the field’s concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on extensive experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. Leads and directs the work of others. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected. Typically reports to top management.

Controller:
Responsible for directing an organization’s accounting functions. These functions include establishing and maintaining the organization’s accounting principles, practices, procedures, and initiatives. Prepares financial reports and presents findings and recommendations to top management. Requires a bachelor’s degree and at least 15 years of direct experience in the field. Typically requires a CPA. Demonstrates expertise in a variety of the field’s concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on extensive experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. Leads and directs the work of others. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected. Typically reports to top financial officer or CEO.

I agree with Patrick. A Fin Director and Controller may have similar comp, but the Controller is the chief accounting officer, after the CFO.

(Finance Director / Controller at Ken Stumder, CPA ) | Sep 6, 2013

I think the answer to this depends on what is meant by “he wants to get a more rounded individual”. I’d agree that at a smaller company Controller is primarily concerned with ensuring the accounting is timely, accurate, and can be used to meaningful effect by upper-management. Has to be compliance minded, which even though a person can be a senior finance professional is not always an aptitude. I view “Finance Director” as more suggestive of a strategic bent and workings with external parties (customers, banks, investors).

(Regional Finance Business Partner at Maersk Line Northern Europe ) | Sep 6, 2013

It really depends on what this person is supposed to do? As Patrick says these titles are being used for many different purposes so instead of defining the job by the title start by defining it by the responsibilities.

Also ask the question what does the CEO need? A beancounter or a business partner? Although the comparison is too simplified I would tend to put the controller in the first bucket and the finance director in the second.

Anders took the words out of my mouth. I don’t think the size of the company matters; it’s about the needs of the company and position. As Patrick points out, review the job description of each and make the appropriate decision from factual data.

(CFO at Local Government Agency ) | Sep 6, 2013

Yep! Square pegs and round holes people. Title means little. Responsibility and productivity mean everything.

(CFO at AnswerLab, LLC ) | Sep 6, 2013

A few additional comments.

People often like to think of the Controller role as being a gateway to the CFO role. This can be true, but not necessarily. In a strict sense, and especially in large companies, the Controller needs to be an accounting guru. This can make that person a bit one-dimensional, however. The CFO role requires a much broader skill set. So, being a successful CPA (BTW, a great prerequisite for a Controller) and/or Controller can lead one to an overconfidence that may not serve that person well if they move into a CFO role.

The flipside is that being a solid CFO does not necessarily qualify such a person to oversee the accounting function. In an organization that has complex accounting, the CFO needs to be humble and hire a strong Controller, preferably with a CPA background, to handle accounting and external reporting.

I’ve seen a lot of Controllers and CFOs get themselves into trouble by not understanding the differences in the roles. I will say, though, that in smaller organizations you can often find strong Controllers who are capable of going it alone without a CFO being in the organization. They are often able to broaden out over time and handle a lot of the typical CFO tasks that come up, which don’t tend to be overly complex in a small organization anyway. In such organizations, its usually most important to the business to put a primary focus on a smooth running accounting organization; hence, the importance of having a solid Controller. Take care in such organizations to not put a Finance Director in charge of accounting who does not have a solid background in accounting. Someone with a finance degree, for example, is going to have a struggle when going it alone as the top accountant. Controller is not a job you can fake.

(Desktop Engineer at Intermountain Healthcare ) | Oct 8, 2014

So, from what I am reading here, and what I already thought. Let’s look at the organization of a small company. It seemed kindof strange to me, so I love to know your thoughts. The finance organization was as such (in pecking order):
CEO
CFO/COO
Director of Finance
Controller
Accounting Manager
Payroll Analyst | AR Analyst | AP Analyst
Accounting Assistant/Generalist

And at another company (much larger):
CEO
CFO | EVP Finance
Controller 1 | Controller 2
Accounting Managers | Payroll Manager
Analysts | Accountants

(Finance Manager at Anonymus ) | Mar 23, 2016

In my Company, Finance Director is a level and Finance Controller is a title. Finance Controller is taking care of accounting while we have a FP A Director taking care of business partner. Above all, we have a CFO/VP Finance taking overall Finance and Accounting.





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