Chief Accounting Officer Vs. Controller

Both chief accounting officers and financial controllers are responsible for how money flows in an institution. This article explains the similarities and differences between these two challenging, but well-compensated careers.

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Comparing Chief Accounting Officer to Controller

A chief accounting officer (CAO) oversees all of the accounting departments within their company, while a controller oversees the day-to-day financial operations. While a controller focuses on reviewing financial data and individual employee performance, a chief accounting officer reviews the performance of their accounting departments as a whole.

Job Title Educational Requirements Average Salary (2019)* Job Growth**
Chief Accounting Officer Bachelor's degree
CPA certification
$166,416 15% (2016-26)
Controller Bachelor's degree
CPA certification
$97,156 (for corporate controllers) 6% (for top executives) (2018-28)

Sources: *PayScale.com, **Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of a Chief Accounting Officer vs. Controller

The chief accounting officer (CAO) focuses on managing teams of employees. They are in charge of designing the long-term financial strategy and workflow for accounting departments. In contrast, a controller carries out the financial strategy that the CAO designs. A controller spends a lot of their time writing and reviewing financial documents, reports, and budgets. Both a CAO and a controller report directly to the chief financial officer or chief executive officer about the legality and quality of their company's financial systems. In a small company, one person may act as both the controller (managing day-to-day financial activities) and the chief financial officer (managing accounting strategy and departments).

Chief Accounting Officer (CAO)

A chief accounting officer is an executive level manager. They understand national and international accounting laws and best practices. They ensure that their company adheres to the most efficient accounting policy and explain complex financial rules to senior-level management. They must have excellent leadership skills because they often lead teams of over 100 employees. Chief accounting officers work in an office setting and typically for large corporations.

Job responsibilities of a chief accounting officer include:

  • Leading accounting staff to follow national and international regulations and company-wide standards
  • Performing quarterly reviews of department performance
  • Reviewing and updating their company's financial systems to increase efficiency
  • Staying up to date with the latest regulations in accounting and informing senior management
  • Coordinating with internal and external auditors to complete annual financial reviews

Controller

A controller ensures that money flows in, out, and through an institution smoothly, legally and in accordance with company policy. To that end, they are in charge of monitoring billing, budgeting, and payroll. Like chief accounting officers, controllers report to the chief financial officer. In smaller companies they may actually hold the role of CFO and report directly to the CEO.

  • Directing the daily responsibilities of an accounting team
  • Filling and submitting forms for federal and state regulatory agencies
  • Predicting future financial performance of their company to make suggestions for how to improve performance
  • Writing regular financial reports to send to CAO, CFO, or CEO
  • Overseeing and monitoring all accounting activities

Related Careers

If you want to be a chief accounting officer, you may want to consider a career as a financial advisor, since both jobs involve creating financial strategies for clients. If you are more interested in becoming a financial controller, consider a career as a certified public accountant, since both jobs involve organizing, reviewing, and balancing financial information.

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