Accounting Controller vs. CFO: Which Does My Business Need?

| December 27, 2022 | By
Accounting Controller vs. CFO: Which Does My Business Need?

4 Key Differences Between a Controller and a CFO

Repeat after us: Controllers and CFOs are not the same. The two might have occasional overlaps in duties, but they approach your business operations and processes from different perspectives. Think about what makes controllers and CFOs stand apart.


1. A CFO is strategic.

CFOs really support companies as partners to help them navigate the ups and downs of business life. When you work with CFO services, everything they do is rooted in strategy to help you succeed. Along the way, your trusted partner can:

  • Advise stakeholders on business decisions.

  • Identify business risks and ways to mitigate them.

  • Implement new business ideas and measure results. 


2. A controller is tactical.

By contrast, controllers are doers, carrying out various financial tactics to strengthen the company’s accounting procedures. But one hand washes the other because these efforts help the CFO meet strategic goals.

Your controller can keep the business in the black, finding new ways to improve profitability. In doing so, they keep a keen eye on your expenses and unlock methods to:

  • Increase profit margins.

  • Boost employee productivity. 

  • Implement cost savings.


3. A CFO focuses on the big picture. 

What will the business look like a month or even a year from now? CFO services always keep the future of your company in mind by managing and planning for your heaviest financial needs today. 

A major piece to this is taking charge of your cash flow management, wherein your CFO services establish procedures for bill payment, purchases, credit, and collections but also create forecasts to understand how decisions may impact the business financially. Of course, other strategies play into maintaining and improving your cash position, and CFOs dive into each headfirst, including:

  • Debt planning to help your business pay down lines of credit, loans, and liabilities 

  • Labor cost management to better understand the cost of each employee and inform hiring decisions

  • Capital negotiations to help your business assess financial opportunities and negotiate expansion deals with bankers

  • Reporting to understand revenue and expenses and generate budget-to-actual reporting to reduce and manage variations in business spend


4. A controller manages the day-to-day.

Just call a controller your lead accountant. Someone has to take charge of your accounting team so you can hit benchmarks and deadlines, not to mention ensure accuracy. So controllers lead all accountants and bookkeeping staff to ensure smooth department operations. 

Part of this means doing a little digging to make sure your company is spending wisely. Your controller lightens the load by:

  • Generating financial reporting, including budget variances, to inform management decisions

  • Preparing budgets and offering advice to improve business performance

Strategic or tactical? Long-term outlook or daily grind? Understanding and acknowledging these differences between controllers and CFOs will help your business prioritize which to hire first. 


Why Should You Outsource Your CFO Services?

Hiring internally or working with a partner firm can affect the amount of time your CFO has to devote to core financial activities and the expertise they bring to the table. So it’s important to identify your priorities when you make the decision. 


When does outsourcing make sense?

Whether you’re usually Team Internal or Team Outsource, there’s no denying that outsourcing your CFO services sometimes does a better job of fulfilling your business needs. 

Outsourced CFO services are ideal when you want to:

  • Cut costs because outsourced CFOs work on a contract and/or part-time basis, so you don’t have to pay salary or benefits. 

  • Maintain objectivity because an outsourced CFO can maintain distance and not let their biases get in the way.

  • Get customized service where your CFO tailors their work based on your company size, industry, and financial needs.

  • Fill a short-term gap, such as when you’re in the middle of hiring a full-time CFO and don’t want any business disruptions. 


Ask the right questions.

Once you’ve decided that outsourced CFO services are your best bet, hang out in the shallow end of the pool before you dive into the deep end headfirst. Find potential partners who fit your needs by reaching out and asking questions surrounding what they do and how they do it, such as:

  • What services do you provide? If you need a CFO and Company X only offers bookkeeping services, move on.

  • How long is your onboarding process? The best firms take their time to get to know you and your business, and 60 days of get-to-know-you time helps to define goals.

  • What will the relationship with my CFO look like? Expert CFO services will probably assure you that they have your back, but they also need to maintain professional distance to serve you appropriately.


Walk Before You Run with Ignite Spot by Your Side

Controller or CFO services? One’s a thinker, while the other translates strategy into action. In a perfect world, your business would have a fully formed accounting team with accountants and bookkeepers—and choosing between a controller and a CFO wouldn’t even be a concern, because they would be ready to go too. But sometimes, you have to take it slow. If that’s the case, hiring a controller first could be ideal. Explore our controller services to get a glimpse into our process and services, and get in touch with questions. 

Strategic growth opportunities should be available regardless of your company’s size.