Is There a Difference Between a Comptroller and a Controller?

The difference between a comptroller and a controller pertains to the business professional’s work environment and not their job function.

Both titles are used to describe the top accountant in an organization. The title of controller is more often used to describe the person who is responsible for tracking the financial activities of a private, for profit business. They report to corporate leaders like Chief Financial Officers or Chief Executive Officers.

Comptrollers perform the same job duties for public, not for profit entities. Here are some specific duties of controllers and comptrollers as well as the academic and professional preparation that is needed to fill the roles.

Job Responsibilities of Controllers and Comptrollers

Both controllers and comptrollers oversee accounting transactions that relate to account payable items and payroll. They are responsible for producing financial statements in formats that are standard for their organizations. Controllers and comptrollers also plan internal audits to evaluate the effectiveness of their organizations’ financial controls and the validity of their financial statements.

Controllers for publicly traded companies prepare the external financial statements that are used for public filings with the Security Exchange Commission (SEC). When fraudulent financial activities are discovered by the SEC because of the incorrect application of accounting standards, the company and its controller is held responsible.

In addition to financial administrative oversight duties, comptrollers within the federal government are generally resource managers who assist senior program directors with the planning and policy making that result in long term, organizational efficiencies and the overall reduction of waste.

Education and Training Needed for Controllers and Comptrollers

Most controllers and comptrollers begin their careers by earning undergraduate degrees in accounting but a few obtain degrees in finance, economics or business administration instead. Since accounting is the main function of the job, controllers and comptrollers usually take the appropriate course work to gain their certified public accounting (CPA) licenses. As they gain more challenging professional experiences, many pursue graduate degrees in accounting, finance or business administration to position themselves for future managerial roles.

Related Resource: How Can I Best Prepare for the CPA Exam?

Schools like Syracuse University have partnered with the Department of Defense (DoD) to offer a Defense Comptrollership Program that allows students to earn a highly specialized Master of Business Administration and Executive Master of Public Administration dual degree.

Helpful Certifications and Professional Development

Besides earning CPA credentials, both private company controllers and government comptrollers pursue certifications like the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) and the Certified Professional Controller (CPC) designations to provide instant verification of their skills and competency levels to hiring managers and their colleagues.

CMA credentials verify the holder’s proficiency in fiscal planning and evaluation to support strategic decision making. The CPC designation indicates that a business professional has working knowledge of financial risk management techniques, regulatory compliance, leadership and professional ethics. Government comptrollers who work within the DoD must also participate in federal financial management certification programs to refresh their knowledge, hone leadership skills and earn specialized certifications that are necessary for their positions.

Conclusion

Although the job functions of comptrollers and controllers are basically the same, there are subtle differences in the activities that are performed to fulfill those functions. Those varied activities are primarily based on regulatory requirements that lead to better accountability for the use of government funds as well as tighter protections for investors in publicly traded corporations. Besides these activities and the specialty training and certifications for those positions, there is not a significant difference between a comptroller and a controller.