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What is the Difference Between an Accountant, a CFO, and a Controller?

With such a wide variety of specialties accountants can fill, it is difficult to pin down a specific list of responsibilities. The general job duties of an accountant can include:

Prepare journal entries
Complete general ledger
Monthly closings
Preparation of monthly financial statements
Reconcile and maintain balance sheet accounts
Draw up monthly financial reports
Prepare analysis of accounts as requested
Assist with yearend closings
Administer accounts receivable and accounts payable
Prepare tax computations and returns
Assist in preparing budgets and forecasts
Assist with payroll administration
Monitor and resolve bank issues including fee anomalies and check differences
Account and bank reconciliations
Review and process expense reports
Assist with preparation and coordination of the audit process
Assist with implementing and maintaining internal financial controls and procedures.

CFOs are part of the executive leadership team and oversee the overall financial management of the organization. They do not necessarily do the hands-on work, but strategize, review, and put the right people in place to make sure all aspects of financial duties are taken care of. They may also oversee the HR department (depending on the size of the organization) since payroll and benefits are significant parts of the budget.

Controllers have more of a hands-on part of the finance duties and in smaller organizations may wear hats of both CFO duties and accountant duties.  They often supervise bookkeepers, tax managers, credit managers and other accounting staff while reporting directly to the CFO, CEO or business owner. In smaller companies, a controller might be the only financial manager in the company or, they might supervise a team of accountants, or they might even be contracted and consult with management about the overall operations of the accounting department. They manage their duties with help from a clerk, bookkeeper or administrative assistant. In general, a controller concentrates on accounting and compliance while a CFO focuses on the forward-looking strategy of the organization.

There are a few different types of Controllers. Most common are business controllers and corporate controllers who manage an entire accounting system for their employers. In a smaller company, you may see a controller setting up the accounting infrastructure and performing the bookkeeping, while larger companies use controllers more in the role of oversight management. Other controllers may work for the government (also known as comptrollers) and are viewed similarly to business controllers for their respective agencies.

The CFO or controller is considered a member of the executive staff and plays a critical role in organizing and managing the accounting staff in a company. Some companies may outsource any aspect of the accounting, Controller, or CFO roles to get different expertise depending on budget, time, and bandwidth of executive management to perform the more complex or upper level functions needed from their finance team.