When to Hire a Controller: 4 Questions Growing Companies Should Ask

By Robert Half July 1, 2016 at 9:00am

As small and midsized organizations grow, there comes a time when business owners need to address the issue of whether to hire a controller. While bookkeepers and accounting managers play an invaluable role in the early stages of an organization, growing companies eventually need more financial expertise.

When businesses decide they could benefit from expanding their business team to add a controller, there are some important threshold questions to ask. We spoke to Noel Tiell, Robert Half director of permanent placement services, to get the answers.

Q: When is it time to hire a controller?

Noel: When an organization increases in complexity — whether it's because lines of business have been added or multiple sites have been opened — operations tend to get more segregated. At this point, it’s best for companies to have someone who can not only generate data but can interpret it so that business owners understand why changes have occurred over time. A controller can also make recommendations that will put the company in the best position to save money and use capital.

Read the research about building and retaining a talented accounting and finance team in The People Puzzle.

Q: Should I hire a controller or a CFO?

Noel: At the early stages of an organization’s life cycle, the controller and CFO are more or less interchangeable, so it’s really just a matter of which title is preferred. As companies continue to expand, there will come a time when the duties of these roles need to be separated.

Q: Is it best to hire a controller externally?

Noel: Whether you promote from within or outside your company can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. If an organization has a strong senior accountant who has worked with the company for years and has knowledge of the ins and outs of operations, it’s absolutely worthwhile to promote that individual. However, many small companies don’t have that succession planning in place, and a strong controller would be vital to their success. In this case, it’s best to hire controllers with a good track record.

Q: Should I hire a seasoned controller?

Noel: Again, the answer varies depending on your situation, though there is something to be said for hiring based on talent rather than a history of working as a controller. I lean toward hiring talent. If there’s a talented individual with diversified industry and software experience, he or she will come in and develop expertise within the first 60 to 90 days. That person is also going to bring to the organization best practices learned in previous roles, which will help streamline operations.

Recognizing the importance of having a strong controller is crucial for growing companies to continue building on their success. Avoid the temptation to see accounting as a cost operation and a nonessential part of the business. Organizations that appreciate their controllers for the changes they can bring — including controlling costs and building internal controls and procedures — will almost always be more successful in the long run.

Q: How do I craft a job description?

Noel: When you're looking to add a controller, one of your first steps is to summarize the position and expectations, prioritize the essential qualities you're looking for, and "sell" your company and what makes it unique. It's a candidate's market, and it's a competitive one.

This controller job description will get you started: Controllers must have solid communication, technology, analytical and management skills. Candidates should possess knowledge of all aspects of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Public companies also require knowledge of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations and provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The role usually requires at least seven years of relevant experience and a bachelor’s degree in accounting or finance.

Many organizations prefer candidates who have a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) or professional accreditation such as the CPA, certified management accountant (CMA) or chartered global management accountant (CGMA). Previous experience in public accounting is highly valued.

Noel Tiell
Noel Tiell

Noel Tiell is Director of Permanent Placement Services at Robert Half Finance & Accounting. He’s been with Robert Half since 2005. He’s worked as a controller, senior internal auditor and senior auditor for several companies, including Ernst & Young and Bristol-Myers Squibb. He’s also a certified public accountant.

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