Accountant vs. Controller: What Are the Differences?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 6 December 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Accountants and controllers are professionals who provide expert financial services in companies and organisations. While both roles have some overlapping functions, the job duties and responsibilities of an accountant differ from that of a controller. If you're interested in working in the financial services sector, it's important to know the differences between these two important job titles. In this article, we discuss the differences between an accountant vs. a controller in a company.

Defining accountant vs. controller

Before looking at the differences between an accountant vs controller, it's important to define the two roles.

What is an accountant?

An accountant is someone who provides specialised financial functions for organisations. They manage the financial processes of a company, including creating financial statements and reconciling accounts. Accountants also audit accounts, prepare taxes, investigate fraud and advise management of ways to improve the organisation's financial health. An accountant can be a standalone person who oversees all the financial operations of small and medium companies. In larger organisations, they can be part of a financial department or supervise a team of bookkeepers and accountants.

Related: A Simple 6 Step Guide on How to Become an Accountant

What is a controller?

A controller oversees accounting operations in a business or organisation. Controllers' duties can include recruiting and training accounting staff, setting and enforcing rules and regulations and managing the daily activities of the accounting department. They can also supervise budget planning and implementation, perform forecasts and conduct feasibility studies and other financial assessments before the company engages in a new investment or project. The controller can also advise management on financial and tax matters and develop and execute strategies for improved financial stability of the business.

Many controllers start their careers as accountants, although some may only have an educational background in finance. They move to the higher position of a controller after gaining extensive work experience and professional credentials. Depending on the size of their company and scope of operations, the controller may only oversee financial functions or provide other specialised services, such as data analysis and business intelligence.

Related: What Is a Financial Controller?

What are the differences between an accountant and a controller?

Here are some differences between an accountant and a controller:

Education

While studying accounting is not necessarily a prerequisite for becoming an accountant, many employers prefer candidates with a strong foundation in the field. If you're an aspiring accountant, studying accounting can make you more attractive to employers. Graduates of other fields, especially statistics, finance, economics, mathematics and business management, can also qualify for accounting roles after passing the required certification exams. Senior accounting roles often call for candidates to be chartered or even be auditors and often require up to five or more years of experience instead of the one to three for entry positions.

The specific education requirements for controllers depend on the employer, but many organisations only require candidates to have a finance background. Many companies prefer controllers with a master's in business administration (MBA), as the role often involves several functions besides managing the accounting department. Having accounting knowledge can give you an advantage when looking for controller jobs, as this gives you an in-depth understanding of the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) which makes it easier to work with other finance professionals.

Job functions

The primary job duties of an accountant involve performing accounting functions, such as preparing financial reports and analysing the financial health of an organisation. Controllers' responsibilities extend beyond accounting practices and procedures, as they also oversee the accounting staff, execute budgets, gather and analyse financial data and enforce legal, tax and regulatory guidelines. While an accountant performs specialised financial procedures, such as reviewing accounts and assessing financial records for accuracy, a controller manages the accounting staff, controls cash flow, delegates duties and ensures that activities of the finance department help the organisation achieve its objectives.

Specialisation

As they gain more experience, accountants tend to specialise in a specific area of the financial sector. Accountants can become experts in a wide range of areas of the profession, including forensics, auditing, management, investment, project management, social accounting, public accounting, fraud and money laundering and staff accounting, among others.

Because controllers typically have more expanded roles than accountants, they tend not to be specialists. Controllers typically require an expansive knowledge in every aspect of their company's financial and business operations, which is why many in the industry have and pursue MBAs and related credentials for effective management of accounting departments and to help deliver results for their organisations.

Related: What Is a Forensic Accountant? Role and Responsibilities

Work-life balance

People who work in the accounting and financial sector typically work long hours. It's normal for accountants to work over 50 hours per week. Their workload may be higher during tax season. Controllers can also expect to work long hours, but their work hours may be lower than that of accountants.

Earning potential

Controllers make far more than accountants. This is predictable since controllers have more duties and responsibilities than accountants. In large organisations, controllers supervise the work of accountants and delegate duties to them. The average accountant can expect to make an average monthly salary of $20,967. Meanwhile, controllers can earn an average salary of $43,240 per month, which is more than double the monthly pay of accountants.

Several factors, such as the employer, location, experience, qualifications and specific job functions, can affect the compensation of these two roles. Senior accountants with respected industry credentials and specialities, such as auditing, can also earn luxurious salaries.

Related: How to Become an Internal Auditor

How to transition from an accountant into a controller role

While many accountants pursue specialities that can help them qualify for senior-level accounting positions, they can also become controllers. Follow these steps if you want to become a controller after working as an accountant:

1. Get requisite finance experience

The first step is to gain adequate finance experience by working in entry-level jobs that help you develop skills in bookkeeping, tax preparation and other accounting duties. It's also important to learn about other aspects of finance operations, including budgeting, forecasting and financial data analysis. Working in an entry role and climbing your way up gives you knowledge of the different functions of a controller, improving your ability to deliver results.

2. Become an assistant controller

Working in an assistant controller role is a logical step after gaining experience in an entry position. While working as an assistant controller or in other similar roles, build your professional credentials by earning certifications and advancing your education with a quality MBA that provides you with fundamental business and financial management skills. As an assistant controller, you can shadow your boss and gain valuable insights into the company's financial procedures and operations.

3. Apply for a controller role

Once you have the requisite experience, education and professional credentials to become a controller, start applying for roles. If there is an opening, companies can promote qualified employees from the finance or accounting department to the post of a controller. You can also apply for the position in other organisations if your company doesn't have an opening for you.

Important skills for accountants and controllers

Here are some essential skills that can help accountants and controllers perform their duties effectively:

Generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP)

GAAP provides a standard operating procedure for accounting professionals to perform their duties. These principles provide a uniform framework for preparing financial statements and documents, thus allowing for uniformity. Knowledge of GAAP is essential for the work of accountants, as it allows other professionals to work with the financial record of their company. Controllers can also benefit immensely from GAAP as it makes it easy to work with accountants, enforce compliance with industry regulations and provide sound financial advice to management.

Analysis

Accountants and controllers require a high level of analytical skills. While the accountant analyses financial information to determine and assess a company's finances, controllers use it for planning, budgeting, forecasting and other critical tasks. A large part of controllers' work involves data analysis and identifying patterns and trends in cash flow and revenue streams, and this requires excellent analytical skills.

Attention to detail

Successful controllers and accountants require attention to detail to deliver positive results. Because they deal with finances, accountants are expected to perform their work with utmost accuracy. Controllers direct the overall financial trajectory of their companies and this requires being detail-oriented to make sense of financial data and its implications for investments, projects and the company's strategic objectives.

Problem-solving

Both accountants and controllers require advanced problem-solving skills. Organisations often encounter issues with their finances and tax practices, and it's the responsibility of the controller and the accounting team to resolve these problems. Whether you're looking to reconcile accounts, detect and prevent fraud, reduce waste or improve budget implementation, being successful in these positions require having a system for assessing, understanding, resolving and documenting problems that can affect your organisation's financial health.

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