What Really Counts?

“I think it’s getting just a little whiffy around here,” I said to my daughter Katie as I extended my arms toward her. Five-month-old Brooke, my youngest grandchild, just a few seconds ago had been cradled against my chest. Now she was at arms’ length, my hands tight around her chest.

“She’s all yours,” I reminded Katie. Not that she needed reminding.

A generation makes all the difference. Thirty-four years ago, when Katie was that age, if the first whiff happened on my watch, I was the one trudging off to the changing table, babe in arms. Now, except during my rare service as DCCP (Designated Child Care Provider), that’s no longer in my job description. Having met the prerequisites as Dad to produce prolific progeny, I’ve been promoted to Grandpa.

Other benefits accrue to this title. Grandson Noah, age 16, visited Princeton for the first time last weekend. According to my daughter Beth, he loved the place and immediately decided that’s where he would go to college in two years. As Dad, my first reaction would have been “Good grief — $50K+ per year!” My second, “Noah, to get admitted here, you’re going to have to… [fill in the blanks with future high school attainments].”

But as Grandpa, all I had to say was “That’s terrific. What a great goal. I’d love to see him at Princeton,” my competitive juices for my own alma mater notwithstanding.

Surrounded by multiple generations of family last weekend, I had job descriptions — or at least roles — on my mind when I accessed an email message from a former client. Having downsized his small consumer-goods company significantly during the past two years, he is finally on the way back. He asked me to review the resumes of seven candidates for the position of Controller of his company in Portsmouth, NH. Unfortunately, the job description that he furnished to the candidates, and then to me, was for the role of a Staff Accountant.

The difference is more than generational. The title said “Controller,” but the description talked mainly about keeping an accurate set of books. The need is for management, but the verbiage said “handle a wide range of accounting duties.” There was a brief reference to corporate strategy, but the six “included responsibilities” were all focused on recording financial history.

When we met in person a couple of days later, he acknowledged that the ad was misleading, but he’d wanted to convey the sense that this was “a hands-on job.” My response: in companies of his size, and on up to at least $20MM, there are very few jobs in any functional area that are not hands-on. In Finance, whether your title is CFO, VP Finance, Treasurer, Controller or Accounting Manager, you are responsible for the numbers. You may not be doing the data entry, but you have to be involved enough to identify results that don’t make sense.

Facility with, and accountability for, the numbers may be the common denominator, but the emphases of the Staff Accountant and the Controller diverge from there. In my 30-year experience with smaller companies, the major differences include the following:

  • Perspective —
    • Accountant: Historical; maintaining the financial records of what happened in the past.
    • Controller: Future; anticipating the financial implication of the range of events that could happen in the next twelve months.
  • Size of firm —
    • Accountant: Provides adequate coverage until there’s need for ongoing budgeting and financial planning, often the point at which the founder/owner gets too busy to handle it.
    • Controller: Critical to companies with complex transactions, including debt financings, major capital equipment purchases, multiple business units, international issues, outside reporting.
  • Skills —
    • Accountant: Thorough knowledge of account recording evidenced by complete and timely accrual-based financial statements and by expert capability with employer’s accounting software.
    • Controller: Ability to accumulate, assimilate, and analyze data from multiple sources in order to identify variances, to hold managers accountable, and to initiate discussion of appropriate changes in tactics or strategies going forward.
    • Accountant: Tracking and ensuring the reporting of those aspects of the firm’s business that might result in income and/or expense. Accurately recording the assets of the organization.
    • Controller: Establishing policies and procedures to ensure the control of and accountability for revenues and expenses. Responsible for safeguarding the assets.
  • Behavioral tendencies —
    • Accountant: Precise, meticulous, thorough, follows precedents, responsive, conscientious, steady, concrete.
    • Controller: Active, initiator and coordinator, inquiring, analytical, logical, judgmental, conceptual.
  • Keys to career progression —
    • Accountant: Having mastered accounting, has to demonstrate depth of cross-functional understanding by providing useful and unique analyses to departmental leaders.
    • Controller: Has to move beyond income statement to take leadership in balance sheet management, understanding financial analysis and being able to convey knowledge effectively to the rest of the management team.

Which brings me back to my career progression as Grandpa. Even with two sons still enjoying bachelorhood, I am blessed (always!) with six (count ’em) grandchildren. As the conversation last weekend ranged from day care costs (accounting) to projected college expenses (controllership), however, I reverted to type, and all agreed — it takes constant financial planning. For the Senior Financial Manager, that’s what really counts.

Draining the Swamp

“Do you ever wonder what people in other industries make? Below, you’ll find median compensation levels for 10 positions at companies with 250 or fewer employees in eight industry sectors…” [Click here for the other seven positions, plus geographic and company size data.]

Industry CEO COO CFO
Construction $192,000 $155,000 $123,000
Finance & Insurance $239,000 $174,000 $136,000
Health Care & Social Assistance $165,000 $119,000 $116,000
Information $233,000 $193,000 $161,000
Manufacturing $221,000 $155,000 $139,000
Professional, Science & Tech $234,000 $159,000 $143,000
Retail Trade $198,000 $143,000 $136,000
Wholesale Trade >$214,000 $151,000 $135,000

— Inc. Magazine, July/August 2011 Compensation Guide