The below is my interview with Mark, financial controller of the middle east division of one of the biggest construction companies in the world. In the below you will learn:
- What you study in an accounting degree
- The qualifications you need to become a financial controller
- How important what you learn at university is to a financial controller career path
- What a financial controller does
- Pros and cons of being a financial controller
- The hours involved in working as a financial controller
- What is the salary of a financial controller
- How stressful the job is
- Advice on how to become a financial controller
What is your degree in?
Looking back, did you know what the day to day of a financial controller entailed at the time?
Yes, I think I did. An accountant is someone who can interpret finance info and deliver that to non-finance people. My dad was also an accountant.
Why did you do the degree you did?
Because I lack imagination! The course I did had a good reputation. There were good job prospects at the end of it. To be honest at that age, I didn’t give my career much thought. Doing an accounting degree seemed like a sensible enough move at the time.
What do you study in an accounting degree?
- Financial Accounting
- Management Accounting
- Consolidation of Financial Statements
- Corporate Finance
- Business Law (introduction)
- Corporate Valuation
Depending on what degree you choose you will get a varying no of exemptions from sitting your professional exams. For example, a pure accounting degree will give you more exemptions than a general business degree. However, I think learning about a broader range of topics is more beneficial in the long run.
What qualifications do you need to become a financial controller?
The majority of financial controllers will have studied some business in university. A well trodden path is usually to get a job with an accounting practice, then do your professional exams. The financial controllers of many of the big multinational companies will have trained with big 4 accounting firms. However, training with a smaller firm will usually give you more broader experience.
A lot of financial controllers will have passed ACA exams. These are more financial accounting based. The other main accounting exams are CIMA* and ACCA.
* for students who want to go working in industry
Did you know you wanted to go down the financial controller career path then?
I had a fair idea. I would have seen the accountancy qualification as an introduction to the business world. Many of the top executives of the big companies come from accounting backgrounds. I think I knew that it wasn’t an exciting career but that it could lead to a very successful one.
Did you seek advice from anyone on a financial controller career path?
Not really. In university there wasn’t much career guidance. In hindsight, I knew plenty of accountants and I never asked advice from any of them. I should have tried to do a a few weeks of work experience in an accounting office.
What % of what you learned in university have you used working as a financial controller?
45%. Maintaining a companies’ accounts in reality is very different to what they teach you in a text book. When working in a big company you have big financial reporting systems that you use. However, what you learn in school and university gives you a good grounding in the terminology and accounting principles used.
If you were 18 again, knowing all you know now, would you do anything differently degree wise?
I would have done something a bit broader; something where you had a bit of choice as to what to specialise in. Many of my friends did a business degree. They then had the choice of specialising in Accounting, Economics, Information Systems, Human Resources or Marketing in their final year. I think I would have liked to have a few more options.
What jobs have you done since graduating? And what have they entailed?
2016 – Present Financial Controller, Construction Firm, Dubai
- Supporting senior management in the Middle East in terms of their decision making
- Ensuring the annual accounts are free of any material misstatements
- Running the finance function
- Hiring and coaching a team of 5-10 people
2013 – 2015 Assistant Financial Controller, Luxury Goods Company, London
- Overseeing the preparation of the annual accounts
- Supervising the financial accounting team during month-end close activities
- Providing financial info to auditors
2011 – 2013 Financial Accountant, Travel Company, London
- Assisting in the compilation of the annual accounts
- Reporting the monthly numbers for my area to management
- Interacting with auditors
2006 – 2010 Audit Senior, Ireland
- Finding issues in companies’ accounts and issuing recommendations across a broad spectrum of clients.
- Managing an audit team of 2-5 people, supervising and coaching them
- Planning and executing a financial audit of a client
What does a financial controller do?
- responsible for all the company’s financial reporting, monthly and annual reporting
- oversee every transaction that happens in the finance function, from invoices being paid to acquiring other companies
- ensure that financial statements comply with accounting standards and that auditors find no issues
- in charge of systems and processes of the finance function
- may deputise for the CFO in his/her absence
- oversee sales, payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, management and financial accounting teams
- handle VAT, corporation tax and any other tax issues
- write accounting policies and procedures for internal company use
- explain financial treatment of costs to non-finance people
- assess the strength of the internal control framework
- ad-hoc financial projects
What are the things you’ve liked and not liked about working as a financial controller? i.e. the last 10yrs working
- Helping people make decisions, and adding value
- Being in a collaborative team
- Finishing month end! (finalising the monthly accounts)
- The repetition of the month end reporting cycle
- Auditors asking you the same question over and over again
- People’s perception of you when you tell them you’re an accountant
- The long hours that you do working in an audit firm
Has working as a financial controller been long hours over the years?
- My standard working day in my current role is 8am – 6pm.
- In my previous roles, I would have worked a pretty standard 9am – 5pm, no weekends or late nights.
- During month end, year end and around the audit the hours can get long 8am – 8pm
- When I worked in the big 4, the hours were really long during busy season which usually lasted 3-4 months
What is the salary of a financial controller?
Financial controllers are pretty well paid jobs. You get rewarded for the amount of responsibility you have.
[According to the Robert Half Salary Guide 2018, a financial controllers salary is between £78k and £100k working in the financial services industry. Whereas in commerce and industry, the range is between £61k and £77k. Working in financial services will generally mean you do more hours than commerce and industry which tends to be more 9-5pm]
Do you find it a stressful job?
It can be quite stressful. You are responsible for the whole finance function. If anything goes wrong, you are ultimately the one responsible. Processes and systems are not always the most straightforward so that can be a challenge too. At the end of the day you are doing an operations job. They can be thankless tasks sometimes. The expectation is that everything will run smoothly. When it doesn’t people will look for someone to blame!
What is the difference between a financial controller and a CFO?
- Responsible for accuracy, consistency and compliance of finance function
- Looks at past data to evaluate the performance of the company
- Expert in financial reporting and accounting policies
- More concerned with the past and the present performance of the company
- Highlights problems through accurate reporting
- Involved and consulted when it comes to big financial decisions
- Responsible for planning, strategy, forecasting, and partnering the business
- Looks at future trends and forecasts to assess risks and opportunities for the company
- May well have started off as a financial controller, needs to have a good knowledge of the finance function
- Able to look at the bigger picture
- Looks for solutions to problems, and puts a plan in place to resolve
- Involved in every big decision a company will make (finance and operational)
If you were 22 again, knowing all you do know, what would you do differently career-wise?
I don’t really know. Maybe something other than a financial controller but I’ve no idea what else I’d do. I think the one thing I’d do is to pick a broader degree, one that gives you more options at the end of it.
What tips would you give a student/young person now?
When you are growing up in a small place, you think there are about 4 job options; Doctor, Lawyer, Accountant, Engineer.
After a few years working, you realise there are millions of jobs and paths that you can explore. Make sure you don’t pigeon hole yourself early on.
What advice would you give to someone interested in a becoming a financial controller?
- Complete a big 4 training contract
- Get a financial accounting or management accounting job in industry. i.e. L’Oreal, GSK, Diageo, Sony, Apple
- Then work your way up – Financial Accountant, Area Controller, Assistant Financial Controller, then FC.
- Try to get some more commercially focused business-facing roles to round out your experience
In your opinion, what makes a good financial controller?
- Knowing the business inside out as you need to be able to spot risks and opportunities
- Be able to leverage systems and automate as much work as possible to keep staff happy and costs down
- Being analytically strong AND being good strategically. i.e. what does this decision mean for the business?
What is the best accounting qualification to do?
ACA (Associate Chartered Accountant)
- This is the more financial accounting based qualification, which people working in accounting practises tend to have.
- You must enter a training contract with an accounting firm and sit your exams while training with them.
- You then can go working in an accounting firm or go into industry.
- It’s only after I have got this qualification that I realise how highly it is regarded. Lots of job specifications will say ACA qualified are the preferred candidates, so it does set you apart from your peers.
- It’s internationally recognised and will mean you can get a job in any country in the world
- The exams can be very hard and failure rates quite high
2. ACCA (Associate Chartered Certified Accountant)
- You can take these exams independently or with a firm
- Three years work experience in finance is a necessary requirement
- It’s also internationally recognised and has members all around the world
- You tend not to get that many in UK/Ireland, people are predominently ACA or CIMA
3. CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants)
- Like ACCA, you can take these exams independently or through a company
- There is no time limit to passing but you do need to rack up three years work experience
- Usually, CIMA graduates tend to go into industry jobs
- I think it’s a more practical qualification as it is closer to what people actually do in their day to day roles
- It’s also globally recognised
To summarise, they are all good qualifications. The study leave entitlements and difficulty of exams are big factors that should be considered. Also, think about where you want to end up working, if it’s in industry then I would recommend CIMA!
If you have any questions about a career as a financial controller, please do not hesitate to get in touch using the ‘contact’ section, thanks!
Mark is a qualified Chartered Accountant (ACA), for more info on how to get this qualification how to become a chartered accountant. There are several different career paths you can follow after getting the ACA qualification, to read my interviews with other ACA graduates, click on the below: