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Comptrollers, or Controllers are heads of the accounting department in a company, organization or agency.

Since December 2010, Gene L Dorado has been the Comptroller General of the United States. This means he is the chief executive officer of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “The GAO is a part of the legislative branch and acts as a ‘watchdog’ on the Executive branch of government…,” states “The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921…established the GAO.

The Act required the head of GAO to ‘investigate, at the seat of government or elsewhere, all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds, and shall make to the President…and to Congress…reports (and) recommendations looking to greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures.” Dorado is the U.S.’ eighth Comptroller General.

There are also comptrollers that do not work for the government’s Executive branch. Sometimes the term ‘comptroller’ is used interchangeably with the term ‘controller’. University of St. Thomas’ Professor Michael O’Donnell distinguishes between the two in that ‘comptrollers’ are financial officials that work for governmental agencies and ‘controllers’ are financial officials for businesses.

You’ll often notice the title ‘comptroller’ associated at all levels of government agencies and perhaps also among institutions, such as universities, as well as non-profit organizations; whereas, you may see the job title ‘controller’ in companies – but this is not set in stone.

Generally speaking comptrollers/controllers are heads of the accounting department in a company, organization or agency.

Comptroller Job Description

A comptroller or controller is generally associated with the role of running all of the accounting aspects of a company, organization or agency. For example, a job posting for Comptroller at Treasure Valley Community College stated the purpose of this position as, “Plan, organize and supervise accounting-related functions for the College, including general accounting, policy development, cash management, budget, audit preparation, forecasting revenues and expenditures, purchasing and accounting-related contract compliance”.

Some comptrollers have more extensive duties that extend into administrative, human resources and additional financial areas.

Examples of controller/comptroller job duties include:

  • Manage the accounting department.
  • Develop budget and financial plans – make financial projections or perform cost-benefit analyses.
  • Prepare regular reports detailing all financial transactions.
  • Oversee payroll.
  • Assess financial performance through monitoring performance measures.
  • Monitor all internal spending, such as approving expenses, collecting all records of purchase, etc.
  • Ensure compliance with all relating laws and regulations.
  • In some cases, manage office logistics, such as ensuring staff has necessary equipment.
  • Keep up to date with insurance coverage.
  • Coordinate independent audits and tax filings.
  • Report to the CEO, CFO or whoever he or she is accountable to.

CFO versus Controller – What’s the Difference?

  • Some agencies/companies/organizations have both a CFO and Controller, while others have one or the other.
  • In the case of both positions existing, the CFO is the head (the Controller answers to the CFO).
  • According to CFOEdge, CFOs develop performance measures, financial plans, policies and procedures, etc, whereas Controllers maintain or prepare these things. The Controller presents financial findings and the CFO explains these findings. (However in the cases where there is no CFO, a Controller may be responsible for the duties normally associated with a CFO).

The Comptroller Career Path

Since a comptroller is a managerial or financial leadership position within a firm or organization, generally he or she has first acquired both relevant education and experience. Employers may ask for several years experience in accounting/finances as well as supervisory or managerial roles.

Degree Requirements

Generally, the minimum degree requirements for a comptroller are a Bachelor’s in Accounting or a related discipline. Some employers may prefer or even require candidates to also have a Master’s in Accounting, Finance or Business Administration.

Certification Recommendations

Since the duties of a controller are so connected to accounting, becoming a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) is a great asset to have when pursuing this leadership role. (Some employers may even state that they require or prefer candidates to have this certification).

To become a CPA you must write an exam administered by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA). Each state has its own regulations regarding eligibility to write the certification exam and to earn the credential/license.

Many states require candidates to have 150 credit hours of higher education related to accounting. (This involves completing additional courses beyond a Bachelor’s degree). You can find out from your state’s board of accountancy on their pre-requisites for becoming a CPA.

Salary & Job Outlook

Financial Managers (which includes Controllers)
Job Outlook: 9% (2010-2020)
Median Salary: $103,910/year (2010)

Accountants and Auditors
(springboard position for eventual Controller position)
Job Outlook: 16% (2010-2020)
Median Salary: $61,690/year (2010)

Career statistics and employment data provided by: