Business Basics
Is your business big enough for a controller vs. CFO?

Is your business big enough for a controller vs. CFO?

illustrated button and cursor with the words business basicsHeader imageHeader imageHeader imageHeader image

CFO or controller? Controller or CFO? Your business needs someone to keep your financial operations running smoothly. But is your business big enough to need a CFO or controller? And which title is right for where your company is at—and where it's headed? Read on for a breakdown of the key differences between CFOs and controllers to help you decide when to hire one vs. the other.

Key takeaways

A controller is an accountant, but they're not just an accountant. They're a financial leader.

A CFO is second in command to the CEO, and is responsible for all financial decisions of their organization.

t companies with both, it's much easier to see key differences, since controllers report to CFOs and are responsible for executing their vision.

What is a controller?

A controller is an accountant, but they're not just an accountant. They're a financial leader. Controllers are responsible for managing their organization's accounting departments, tracking relevant financial data, and producing important financial reports. They are the trusted voice of financial reason not just for their department, but for all departments.

Top controller duties

  • Managing an accounting staff
  • Monitoring internal controls
  • Managing cash flow and spending
  • Overseeing the month-end close

What is a CFO?

A CFO is second in command to the CEO, and is responsible for all financial decisions of their organization. From monitoring daily financial operations and allocating resources to implementing digital transformation efforts and forecasting and strategizing the impacts of all their decisions—not to mention communicating regularly with both investors and board members—a CFO's job is hard to capture in a few sentences.

Top CFO duties

  • Developing strategies for internal growth
  • Supporting the CEO with regular financial plans
  • Overseeing the financial department of the company
  • Implementing digital transformation efforts
  • Communicating with clients, investors, board members, and company leaders
  • Performing risk management, auditing, and development research
  • Identifying relevant investment and financial planning opportunities
  • Developing and pursuing business ventures
  • Managing mergers and acquisitions 

4 key differences between controller vs. CFO

While both roles exist to help their companies grow, there are many things that set CFOs apart from controllers. At companies with both, it's much easier to see, since controllers report to CFOs and are responsible for executing their vision. At companies with a controller and no CFO, however, it can be a little tougher. Here are four key differences to help you tell them apart.

Aspect Controller CFO
Director vs. Executive Director in org charts Executive in org charts
Scope and Responsibilities Accounting, reporting, compliance All controller responsibilities plus forecasting, investor relations, and setting tone and vision with CEO
Tactics vs. Strategy Day-to-day tactics and execution Long-term strategy and forecasting
Internal vs. External Internal financial face of company External financial face of company

1. Director vs. executive

In terms of org charts, controllers are directors and CFOs are executives. At smaller companies that only have controllers, this distinction is less meaningful. But this difference is still noticeable in terms of overall compensation, responsibilities, and autonomy.

2. Scope and responsibilities

CFOs have a wider scope and set of responsibilities than controllers. Where controllers are responsible for accounting, reporting, and compliance, CFOs are responsible for all that plus forecasting, investor relations, and working directly with the CEO to set the tone and vision of the company.

3. Tactics vs. strategy

In general, controllers are more focused on day to day tactics and execution. While CFOs are focused further out on things like forecasting, long-term strategy, and how to capitalize on or overcome market-level trends.

4. Internal vs. external

Controllers are the internal financial face of the company—the leader of the accounting department. But CFOs are the external financial face of the company. CFOs are often in charge of leading quarterly earnings calls, communicating and strategizing with the board, and liaising with banks and large suppliers.

Controller vs. CFO salary

How much does a controller make?

Average controller salaries (as of 2024) are between $110,000 and $180,000 per year, but can go as high as $250,000. Why the wide range? Factors such as experience, company size, scope of role, industry, and more all play a role in determining controller compensation.

How much does a CFO make?

Typical CFO salaries fall between $150,000 and $300,000 a year, but can go much, much higher depending on the size and value of the company. Other factors include education, location, experience, private vs. public companies, full time vs. fractional, and more.

When to hire a controller vs. CFO?

Controllers and CFOs are essential for taking your company to the next level. But how do you know which one to hire? And when? Here are some signs to help guide you.

Signs you need to hire a controller

  • You're scaling up - The more complex your business becomes, the more you'll need a financial leader to help manage your accounting, use capital wisely, streamline processes, and cut costs.
  • Your accountant(s) are overwhelmed - Instead of adding another accountant or bookkeeper to the payroll, adding a controller can help you streamline processes, implement automation and integrations, and save time and money.
  • Your CFO is overwhelmed - A CFO without a controller can easily become overwhelmed with the day-to-day grind. Adding a controller can help your CFO focus on the mid- and long-term strategy.
  • You're looking to control costs - Controllers are skilled in finding ways to cut costs and reduce expenses. They'll help departments align, push back on spending decisions, and offer advice on how to use capital wisely.
  • You need help managing company data - Supervising your company's accounting processes—and all the data that comes with it—is right in a controller's wheelhouse. They'll help you digitize, automate, and integrate new tech tools to streamline your finances.

Signs you need to hire a CFO

  • You're in transition - Going through a big change like a merger, acquisition, or relocation? A CFO can keep your finances on track and give you the necessary high-level insights and leadership to make your transition smooth.
  • You need forecasting - Financial data can help you plan ahead and find growth in unexpected places. But without a CFO to turn all that historical data into insightful projections and data-driven decisions, it's being wasted.
  • You're overwhelmed - Running a finance department on top of running a company can quickly become a burden. A CFO can help ease the pressure and take over the financial workload so you can focus on big decisions. (They'll also help support and guide said decisions.)
  • You're negotiating - CFOs are perfect partners for negotiating with vendors, banks, clients, investors, or partners. Their deep knowledge of your company's financials is invaluable for securing your next big deal.
  • You need help managing growth - Growth is great, but it needs optimization to keep it sustainable. CFOs will track and analyze all your financial metrics and provide key insights into how to optimize your growth.
  • You need help managing risk - You can only mitigate so much risk by yourself. A CFO can put financial controls in place and provide an expert eagle-eye for your financial data to spot errors or issues before they become problems.
  • You need to upgrade your financial tech stack - Every company needs a modern financial tech stack, and CFOs are the perfect person to lead yours into the future. New tools and automation can save you tons of time, money, and give you more control.

What size companies use a controller vs. CFO?

Using annual revenue as a guide, let's break down what type of financial leaders different size companies tend to use. This isn't an exact science, as not all companies of certain sizes will have the same complexity or approach to their financial operations.

Less than $1M - bookkeeper or accounting manager Most small businesses with less than $25M in annual revenue can get by with a bookkeeper or accounting manager.
$1M - 10M - controller As revenue rises past $1M, the increased financial complexity typically means companies of this size will have a controller on staff.
$10M - 50M - controller or fractional CFO This annual revenue range is tricky, as some companies will benefit from moving up to a fractional CFO, while others will be able to thrive with just a controller with a lean finance department.
$50M and up - in-house CFO $50M is the sweet spot for hiring an in-house CFO. At this size, the need for expert-level financial forecasting, tax and legal knowledge, and ability to manage larger and more complex financial departments is essential.

NOTE: Some startups will hire a CFO before a controller—or even before any other finance professionals. These CFOs are often also skilled accountants or controllers already and will take on both the day-to-day financial duties as well as the financial planning and long-term strategy duties.

How controllers and CFOs can leverage financial automation

Financial automation can help your company simplify everything from accounts payable to financial planning & analysis. And with a tech-savvy controller or CFO leading the charge with selection, implementation, and optimization, leveraging the latest financial automation platforms is that much easier. 

Here are three first-hand accounts from controllers and CFOs who helped their companies take advantage of the power of financial automation platforms.

Melissa Skalla, Controller at Teguar Computers

"I would say BILL saves us at least five hours a week . . . I'm able to do a lot more strategic work than maybe most controllers would do, or that I have in my experience anyways." And, of course, it also means more time to keep the momentum going on automating more financial processes. "One of my big pushes here is to try to start automating stuff even more than we already do. So of course, BILL helps with that."

Read the full story of how Teguar's finance team uses BILL Accounts Payable to streamline their AP process to save time and improve cash-flow forecasting.

Quazi Khaled, CFO at Gardyn

“With BILL, the approval process is very streamlined, governance is very streamlined . . . Being a fully remote company, it’s great because we don't have to worry about approvals. No matter where an approver is in the world, approving an invoice is easy . . . Sometimes I can't believe we did the paper trail as much as we did in the past. BILL has definitely been a game changer.”

Read the full story of how BILL enable Gardyn to streamline AP and expense management amid rapid growth.

Christy O’Neil, CFO at The Life Link

“Before I was always in the weeds. I always felt like I was a day behind. With BILL, now I have time to breathe and to think . . . We are a nonprofit that has not only an annual audit, but program audits from our funders several times a year. We are required to have controls that help eliminate fraud. BILL is set up in a way that I can have good controls without having a lot of staff."

Read the full story of how The Life Link supports the Santa Fe Community with financial operations support from BILL.

Controller vs. CFO FAQs

Is the controller a higher level than CFO?

Yes, but it's complicated. At organizations without C-level positions, controllers could easily be the top financial leader. But at larger organizations with a C-suite, CFOs are definitely the head honchos, with controllers reporting up to them.

Here's a look at a typical financial department hierarchy, starting at the top:

  1. CFO - Second in command, CFOs report directly to the CEO and the board of directors.
  2. VP of Finance - Just below the CFO is the VP of Finance. And like most VPs, their job is less glamorous. Though they are often promoted to CFO. 
  3. Controller - Next in line is the Controller, a senior accounting expert—often a CPA with an MBA.
  4. Accountant - Whether in-house or contractors, CPAs are the backbone of the financial department.
  5. Bookkeeper - Not to be underestimated (or unsung) are the Bookkeepers, the worker bees who keep the books in order.
  6. Specialists - Often, companies will also have specialists in things like FP&A, HR, taxes, budget analysis, AP/AR, inventory, or other operational aspects as part of the team.

Can controllers be promoted to CFO?

Yes and no. Not all controllers become CFOs. And not all CFOs were once controllers. But the path from controller to CFO is there, though it's rarely quick.

What is a fractional CFO / What is a fractional controller?

A fractional CFO (or controller) is a part-time position often hired by startups on a contractual basis. Fractional CFOs and controllers typically work for multiple companies at the same time, limiting their time spent to a set amount of hours per week. This allows companies a scalable, low(er) cost alternative while still giving them access to the expert-level financial skills and advice a controller or CFO can bring to the table.

Empower your controller (or CFO) with BILL

Whether your company has a controller or a CFO (or neither, yet), BILL can empower your company's financial operations with the efficiency, control, and visibility to meet your goals for next quarter—and next year. 

Take a demo to see how you can help you take your financial operations to the next level.

Ready to take control of your accounts payable? Try BILL AP risk free!

The information provided on this page does not, and is not intended to constitute legal or financial advice and is for general informational purposes only. The content is provided "as-is"; no representations are made that the content is error free.