Career focus: financial controller

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There are few jobs that sound more important than that of a financial controller. More people in real control of the finances are surely what the world needed a couple of years ago as it teetered on the brink (and then fell headfirst into) a chasm of global financial doom.

But what do financial controllers actually do – and to what degree are they really in control? There is no doubt that it is a popular career path for those who have worked for the ACCA Qualification, but full commitment is essential, as our case study shows. Really high achievers can expect reward both in terms of quality of work and also remuneration, but there are a number of roles on the path towards being financial controller of a multinational corporation that give finance professionals a diverse and challenging career.

As far as the nuts and bolts of the job, Nik Pratap, director at Hays, says: ‘Financial controllers primarily oversee all of the day-to-day operations in the finance department and will report directly to the finance director. They will typically come from a management or financial accounting route or from a firm of accountants and will now be working towards becoming a finance director.’

He also points out that generally speaking the job title of ‘company accountant’ is associated with smaller companies, whereas financial controllers are found within larger companies, though the duties of both roles are largely very similar.

Ben Searls, manager at Badenoch & Clark, meanwhile, adds: ‘Small companies tend to employ a company accountant to manage the entire financial responsibilities of the organisation. However, this tends to be a standalone role compared to a financial controller who will have a team that assists with a variety of tasks.’

‘A financial controller is responsible for the monthly, quarterly and annual management of financial accounts. They look after the financial reporting for the business and tend to be the finance director’s second-in-command. Their role is to manage the company’s transactions, such as accounts payable, receivable, payroll, control accounts and general operational finance,’ he adds.

Because of the close relationship between the accountant and senior management, a financial controller’s role can bring a unique set of challenges – and opportunities. ‘Financial controllers need to take more of an interest in the overall performance of a business rather focusing solely on the numbers,’ says Pratap.

It can sometimes be a challenge to make sure that the role of the finance controller is as visible as possible.

‘A current challenge is encouraging the business to work in partnership with the finance team, rather than seeing it as a back-office function,’ warns Searls. ‘By integrating the finance department into the heart of the organisation, controllers will find it easier to build strong relationships with key members of the organisation. This, in turn, makes it easier to maintain a two-way dialogue about the organisation’s finances and general health of the business.’

Because of the delicate balancing act that financial controllers have in terms of carrying out a crucial financial – and highly technical – role within a business environment, soft skills are imperative for candidates who want to pursue a career in financial control.

‘They will need to take on more of a business partnering approach to finance,’ says Pratap, ‘and they will need to be more involved in the business and strive to make a positive impact on a company’s profitability.’ On top of this, good leadership and communication skills are also paramount.

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This is not to say that soft skills should take the place of robust technical skills, which are, says Searls, ‘key for the role of financial controller, as well as the ability to demonstrate strong financial accounting skills and prepare management accounts.’

As with any job in the current climate, roles for financial controllers were impacted by the recession. But for every company that failed – or that shed staff during the lean period, there were as many that realised the importance of good business accountants, meaning, that now – according to Searls: ‘The role of financial controller is more in demand than ever and as such, the job market continues to improve. Our financial services teams are 80% up on recruitment activity when compared with the same time last year and the rest of the private sector is continuing to improve.’

Financial controllers work within all industries.  Although sometimes the career you decide on early in your studies or straight after qualification is the one you have your entire working life, flexibility to change or diversify as the years go by can be a welcome perk of any job. Is it a question, then, of once in business, always in business?

‘Financial controllers can transfer into practice,’ says Searls, ‘however this is not the norm – most continue into their first finance director role. There are also opportunities to progress into more commercial roles and we see many specialise in areas such as audit, tax and treasury.’

‘The ACCA Qualification provides professionals with the skills they need to become a successful financial controller. We regularly meet professionals who have excellent careers as a result of their ACCA Qualification,’ says Pratap. However, he adds: ‘If a candidate wanted to complement their qualification they might look to take an MBA in the future.’

And Searls advises those interested to ask a current financial controller to mentor them and also to ‘keep as up to date as possible with international qualifications, as it will help you stand out against the competition’.

Case Study - Adrian Huen

Adrian Huen is an FCCA who qualified in Hong Kong in 1994 after taking an accounting degree in the UK. He explains why he was first attracted to a career in finance and chose to become a financial controller.

‘Accountancy is a profession that can be applied to and required by any kind of industries. All companies need some kind of finance functions. [It] is a very flexible profession and covers a lot of areas far beyond than numbers and financial reporting such as company and contract laws, tax and financial management. As an accountant, your career path can go as far as you could go within an organisation. It is a profession that can take you to the top of a corporate ladder.’

Starting as a financial controller, Adrian is now managing partner (commercial and finance) of an advertising network covering APAC (Asia/Pacific). He got the role through Michael Page International.

‘On a day to day basis, I provide financial and commercial advices/consultancy to the chairman and top management of the group in the region and local units in Asia, work with the top management on financial planning and business strategies (long and short-term), ensure all financial and reporting are in order as well as oversee clients and senior management staff contract negotiations.’

The biggest challenge of the work, he says, is to ‘manage senior management’s expectation within a huge organisation’.

As far as the skills you need to be a successful financial controller, Adrian believes that you need to have good analytical skills and be able to work out the commercial and financial implications of any decision made with the organisation. ‘You need to react fast in any situation.’

Above all, he says, ‘you need to have extremely good interpersonal skills. At the end of the day, what we are dealing with in an organisation is people not numbers. Accountants are more than just bean counters. We need to be prepared to work as close partners with our senior management.’

This article was first published in Student Accountant

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