Accounting department titles, while often used to describe a varying array of job duties, responsibilities and experience, can often be a little obscure. The role of the “Controller” in many organizations may be a “catch all, do all” role in the accounting department. If that is the case in your organization you may run the risk of missing out on the true value a Controller can provide within your organization. The primary role of a Controller in the Accounting and Finance department should be to provide accurate financial reports on a periodic, relevant and timely basis, helping the organization understand their financial data and the insights they can draw from that data to make better, faster, more confident, business decisions.
Sounds straightforward, right? Let’s deconstruct this to better understand the role of the Controller and the value they can provide your organization
What Financial Reports Matter?
If your company is like most, you have a lot of data, but knowing which data to focus on can be challenging. When we think of the role of the Controller and their ability to glean insights and make recommendations from a firm’s financial data we think of these key reports:
- Income Statement
- Balance Sheet
- Cash Flow Statement
- Inventory Levels and Valuation
- Accounts Receivable & Payable Aging Reports
- Budget vs Actual Comparisons
Periodic – How Often?
Most financials are published on a monthly basis. For most businesses, this will generally be an ideal cadence. There is time to respond to the information and make any needed course corrections in the business before too much time has passed. However, depending upon what is going on in the business, it may make sense to run certain financial reports more often, maybe even weekly to ensure you have a good grasp on critical areas of your business that may be rapidly changing.
For companies that have more cyclicality to their business, or do not have good revenue recognition procedures, a quarterly review of the numbers may provide more insight, with less “noise” from the individual monthly results.
Many companies rely on their CPA to produce tax returns, which by their nature are yearly reports, to determine how their business is performing. As you may imagine from my comments above, that is way too much time between reviews to make meaningful decisions to improve results. Imagine waiting 11 months to know that your gross profit was declining in January. A very real possibility given the current inflationary environment.
A good Controller will know the right cadence for each of the reports, adjusting frequency as the business changes, enabling them to garner the insights they need to make confident business decisions.
Relevant – How Detailed?
We see varying degrees of detail in the financial statements we interpret for our clients. Some have a single line for sales, while others have multiple lines, one for each product. While these are extreme examples and will vary by company, we believe that a periodic review of the structure of your financial statements, the Chart of Accounts or QuickBooks Categories, can be useful to improve the value of the statements being generated.
In general, a “Goldilocks” approach applies to most chart of account detail – not too much, not too little, but just right. Our approach is to find the 20% of activity that drives 80% of the results, create detailed accounts for those, and create summary accounts for the rest. Attributes like frequency, relative size and variability help to decide the level of detail that works best. An extreme, yet common example would be PPP Loan Forgiveness. We would not create a category for this (hopefully) one – time event. It would also be considered “Other Income”, rather than Revenue, as we would want to clearly see the impact of this event.
Experienced Controllers know the right level of detail needed to ensure they are tracking the relevant financial data that will enable them to make decisions and adjust on the fly
Timely – How Many Days?
Finally, we often discuss the timing of our client’s financials. In other words how many days (hopefully not months) from the end of the prior month do we expect to finalize or publish the financials. This is a judgment call with several factors to consider. Our preference is to get an accurate report quickly after the close, but if we have to choose, we will give up some accuracy to ensure we are getting financial reports in a timely manner. Please remember that all financial reporting has estimates in the results. The longer we have to wait to determine if something is wrong the harder it is to correct or leverage them.
Technology and improved processes can help streamline the month-end closing process so that results can balance the accuracy and timeliness ratio. This topic can be hotly debated in the department, as many accountants are drawn to the satisfaction of reconciling a statement or account. We are constantly challenging our clients to speed up the closing process, even if it introduces a little less accuracy. We consider this variability and it will even out over time.
An experienced Controller will determine how quickly a company can close its financial reporting every period, finding the balance between accuracy and timeliness and the ability to act upon the data and insights in order to make adjustments to the business with a level of confidence.
Ways Controllers Can Improve Business Operations
A company’s Controller is in a great position to impact and improve business operations. They usually have access to all of the right data and with the right analytics can spot trends and trouble areas quickly.
- Identifying a slowdown in growth by monitoring the 3/12 and 12/12 growth trends
- Identifying potential cash flow issues
- Identifying potential issues with Inventory (low and high inventory levels)
- Monitoring how a company is doing versus forecast
- Identifying issues with Accounts Receivable, slow pay and no pay customers
Each of the above may indicate trouble spots that need addressing now or may be worth monitoring over the next few weeks and months to determine if the issue is anomaly or if it is an indicator of a trend that may have a negative impact on the health of the business.
What should I do?
If your company has a Controller, we suggest an open discussion with your team to understand where in the above spectrum you are operating. If you don’t currently have a Controller but want to start getting your arms around this data we can help. Please connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by connecting with us on our website at www.insightfulpartners.com/connect.
About The Author:
Ken LaCroix, CEO of Insightful Partners, has been guiding businesses through rapid growth, restructurings, mergers and acquisitions throughout his entire career. He has a particular focus on leveraging technology investments to increase productivity, scale and ultimately business value. He has owned businesses, negotiated their purchase and sale, and served as the “hired gun” for investor/private equity owned firms.