When discussing our services with a business owner, it is not unusual to have the business owner ask…”What is the difference between a CFO and a Controller”? Most companies hire an accounting person or a Controller early on in their life cycle. Frequently, that person brings structure to the “numbers” side of the business and the business owner believes he/she can now go back to focusing on the operating side of the business. I think it is helpful to describe the difference between the focus and functions of a Controller versus a CFO.

The Controller is paid to look back, that is, to collect receivables generated last month, pay payables incurred last month and close the books for the month once it has ended. The Controller is the business owner’s eyes into the past. They can only tell the business owner where the business has been.

A CFO looks forward. He/she analyzes the business and the markets in which it operates to determine where future growth opportunities may exist, create operating plans and forecasts for the coming year(s), determine how best to manage the company’s current and future risks and assesses the resources (human, financial and operational) that will be required if the company is to achieve success in the future. The CFO is the business owner’s eyes into the future.

Controllers perform a very important role for the business owner and can add significant value to the organization. CFO’s, however, add value across the operating and financial sides of the business and are in a unique position to see future opportunities and challenges.