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The terms “controller” and “comptroller,” as well as the positions they define, may seem strikingly similar. Indeed, the word “comptroller” is believed to stem from a 15th Century misspelling of “controller.” However, despite the similarity in titles and functions, there are some significant differences between the duties of a controller and a comptroller.

Some organizations use the terms Controller and Comptroller interchangeably or assign other titles to the roles. For the purposes of this article, we will use the titles in their traditional sense to describe the roles they generally encompass.

What Is the Difference Between a Controller and a Comptroller?

One of the biggest differences between comptrollers and controllers is the types of organizations where they work.  A controller generally works at a for-profit corporation, while a comptroller is usually found in a government agency or a nonprofit business. A controller typically reports to the CFO of a company, whereas a comptroller tends to have a more senior role as head of the financial department, possibly at a county, state, or national level. The comptroller often acts as both CFO and controller within a public body.

While a controller is answerable to company management and shareholders, a comptroller is answerable to government officials and taxpayers. As a member of the private sector, the controller is likely to have a higher salary than the comptroller. However, the comptroller often receives government benefits and perks that compensate for the difference in pay.

A controller’s primary concerns are cost controls and corporate profitability. A comptroller, on the other hand, is more concerned with budgeting and fund accounting.

What Controllers and Comptrollers Have in Common

Both controllers and comptrollers are senior-level officers of financial departments. Usually, they manage the accounting staff and have responsibility for all accounting transactions and financial records within the organization. They maintain the general ledger and chart of accounts. They assist auditors in performing external and internal financial examinations.

Controllers and comptrollers are financial professionals who generally hold degrees in accounting and have a strong understanding of the principles of business and industries in which they work. Many have CPA certifications, MBA degrees, and other certifications. They are directly involved at the highest level with the financial affairs of an organization. They ensure the accuracy of financial reports and provide data to top executives. They enforce accounting standards, company policies and internal controls, and legal requirements.

The Controller’s Role

A controller heads the financial organization within a company and is responsible to care for the overall financial picture of the enterprise. The controller typically manages accounting operations such as accounts receivable, accounts payable, billing, revenue recognition, cost accounting, risk assessment, inventory accounting, and tax filing.

The controller prepares, verifies, and publishes financial reports and assures compliance with federal, state, and local regulations. The controller’s primary concern is the company’s bottom line. Working with top management, the controller develops financial forecasts, budgets, policies, procedures, and internal controls. Simply put, the controller helps guide a company’s strategic financial decisions and is crucial in overseeing and reporting on the overall financial health of a company.

Controllers focus mainly on the company’s bottom line: the company’s net income after all expenses are taken into account.

The Comptroller’s Role

A comptroller is a senior executive who oversees an organization’s accounting and financial reporting processes. Typically, the comptroller is the head of the accounting department and is responsible to ensure the accuracy of financial reports such as income statements and balance sheets with the government equivalent statements are known as Statement of Activities and Statement of Net Assets respectively. Budgeting, fund accounting, and financial controls are big parts of the comptroller’s job.

Most comptrollers work in government agencies or nonprofit enterprises that are highly regulated by law. The comptroller, therefore, has a high degree of responsibility for legal compliance and public reporting. Comptrollers must also manage financial contributions such as donations and grants.

Comptrollers focus primarily on accomplishing the organization’s mission and keeping expenditures within budget, to satisfy the ever-present scrutiny of lawmakers and taxpayers.

Controller Versus Comptroller: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Controller

Comptroller

Reports to: Company CFO Reports to: Executive management
Also answerable to: Executives and shareholders Also answerable to: Taxpayers and government
Manages: All accounting operations Manages: Accounting department
Primary Responsibility: Corporate profitability and financial well-being Primary Responsibility: Budgets and financial controls

Other Duties:

  • Corporate accounting
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Budgeting and financial forecasting
  • Financial statements
  • Process development and supervision
  • Financial risk management
  • Reports and tax filing

Other Duties:

  • Financial reporting
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Fund accounting
  • Management of contributions
  • Expenditure monitoring
  • Process development and supervision
  • Accounting and auditing
Type of Organization: Private or public company Type of Organization: Government agency or nonprofit enterprise

Typical Qualifications:

  • College degree in accounting or finance
  • CPA, CMA, and/or MBA
  • Strong organizational skills
  • Deep understanding of business finance
  • Knowledge of regulatory requirements
  • Background in financial analysis, forecasting, and risk management

Typical Qualifications:

  • College degree in accounting or finance
  • CPA, CMA, and/or MBA
  • Strong organizational skills
  • Deep understanding of government or nonprofit finance
  • Knowledge of regulatory requirements
  • ·       Background in cost control and auditing

Final Thoughts

Controllers and comptrollers perform similar but not always identical functions in different organizations. A controller is typically found in a for-profit company and works to improve net revenue.  A comptroller usually works for the government or a nonprofit company and ensures that expenditures stay within allotted budgets. Understanding the differences can help determine your company’s financial focus.

About the Author

Jill Tavey CFO at Preferred CFO

Jill Tavey

CFO

Jill Tavey is an experienced outsourced CFO with over a decade of high-level financial expertise and experience. Her ability to negotiate, make and maintain key relationships, and shape strategic direction has helped propel multiple companies through significant growth.

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