What Is the Difference Between a Comptroller & a Vice President of Finance?

by Janet Stanton Burt

Comptroller and vice president of finance are very similar business roles that are occasionally confused with each other. Both are senior managerial positions concerned with overseeing a company’s finances, accounting and risk management – yet there are some key distinctions between the two that result in important differences in job and salary expectations.

Comptroller Defined

The comptroller, also called the controller, can be thought of as head of the accounting department, with three key areas of responsibility: technical accounting, business operation knowledge and strategic management. Comptrollers perform a number of highly specialized tasks, from managing the bookkeeping and payroll functions, to preparing historical financial statements, implementing basic financial and accounting systems, and projecting future earnings and expenses. By sifting through mountains of data, the comptroller creates reports that help company management evaluate risk, create strategic plans and review operations accurately. Frequently, the comptroller reports directly to the vice president of finance or Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

Vice President of Finance Description

The vice president (VP) of finance, a title sometimes used interchangeably with CFO, is the financial leader of a company. The VP of finance is charged with strategically leading a company toward successful growth, and effectively managing, rather than avoiding, risk. Successful VPs of finance oversee accounting, finance, payroll and tax departments, and must use analyses of past performance to predict the organization’s financial future. Vice presidents of finance provide leadership and coordination of a company’s budget management, debt financing and financial planning.

Key Distinctions

At a large company, the comptroller is responsible for presenting accurate financial records to top management, illustrating, for example, a decline in quarterly profits. Using information provided by the comptroller, it is the job of the vice president of finance to evaluate and explain such a decline, determine the cause and to suggest ways to correct the problem. Simply put, comptrollers manage risk, while vice presidents of finance lead companies out of risky situations. At small companies, both functions may sometimes be performed by the same person.

Education and Experience

Both comptrollers and vice presidents of finance work at the top of the corporate ladder and have many years of managerial experience before reaching their elevated posts. Both jobs require either certified public accountant or certified management accountant certifications. A vice president of finance will also be likely to have a master’s degree in finance, accounting or business. A job as a comptroller can sometimes be on the career path toward a vice president of finance position.

Salary Differences

Salaries for both comptrollers and vice presidents of finance vary widely with the size of the employer, with larger companies paying much more. According to Robert Half International’s 2012 Salary guide, a comptroller at a large company with more than $500 million in sales earned anywhere from $135,750 to $183,250, while a comptroller at a smaller firm with sales under $50 million earned from $69,000 to 95,000. Vice presidents of finance at the largest firms earned from $215,500 to $340,750, while those working at companies with sales under $50 million earned from $87,500 to $114,250. The higher salaries commanded by vice presidents of finance reflect their leadership roles. These salaries do not reflect bonuses, which are often part of total compensation, and advanced degrees and certifications are assumed at this level.

About the Author

Janet Burt has written professionally for more than 20 years, specializing in business, careers, healthcare and the arts. Her work has appeared in “Self,” “Focus,” and “The Philadelphia Inquirer,” among other places. Also a professional artist, Burt has a degree in English and German from Colgate University.

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