A CPA Career in Corporate Accounting and Finance

Corporate accounting and finance is probably the most traditional area where you’d expect a CPA to belong in an organization.

A CPA career in corporate accounting and finance can be extremely lucrative, particularly if you aspire to become a controller, director of accounting or a CFO someday. Many CFOs also go on to become company CEOs.

Every company, big and small, needs professionals who understand and can execute accounting appropriately. If the company is a publicly traded company, it is subject to the securities and exchange commission laws (SEC) as well as other applicable regulations such as Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) and Dodd Frank.

Although there is no such documented mandate that a CPA license is required to practice in this area, most companies will not hire you, at least for higher level positions, if you are not a CPA. And if you want to progress within the organization in this area, your employer will likely push you to get your CPA certification.

This is not a bad thing. In fact it’s the opposite. If your employer does this, it means that they see the potential in you to rise through the ranks. Many employers also reimburse you for the cost incurred to study and sit for the exam if you were to pass it.

What Do CPAs in Corporate Accounting and Finance Do?

They count beans. No really, they do. This is where the stereotypical phrase for an accountant or CPA as a “bean counter” comes from. Why? Because it is corporate accounting and finance’s job to ensure that the company’s activities are accurately captured, accounted, recorded and presented.

Accounting, in its most basic sense, means the accurate gathering, compilation and recording of all activities that translate into numbers (dollars and cents). And to ensure the records, or books, are correct, there are several functions that have to work together.

For example, journal entries have to be made to record transactions, reconciliations have to be performed to ensure we have account balances correct, technical accounting must be understood and applied to ensure we are complying with reporting presentation guidelines, and controls need to be designed, developed, executed and monitored that ensure the integrity of the accounting and entire financial reporting process. Hoooff – breathe…

Can you see why some corporate accounting departments can get really large? In addition to all the above, CPAs in corporate accounting and finance functions also interact heavily with the company’s internal and external auditors. It is not uncommon for public companies to leverage their internal audit functions to assist accounting management in SOX compliance testing, essentially testing the controls over the financial accounting and reporting process.

External auditors on the other hand are always interacting with the corporate accounting function to understand the organization’s processes, obtain documentation for testing and follow up with questions and address concerns.

This is why it is common for an external auditor to transition into a company’s accounting and finance function when he or she is ready to leave the demanding public accounting lifestyle. It’s just a natural match.

Career Path of a CPA in Corporate Accounting and Finance

Out of college you’d normally start in an analyst or accountant position and rotate through the various functions within a corporate accounting group. These will include basic reconciliations, journal entries and day to day tasks like compiling, reporting, number crunching, etc.

Later on you will do the same but get to do it with more complicated areas of the business, learning technical accounting concepts along the way. Eventually you will be involved in assisting with “closing the books”, a role often handled by a general ledger accountant. A GL accountant is also heavily involved with financial reporting.

Next is the Controller level, where you oversee the entire corporate accounting and financial reporting function. In larger organizations, you will often see a VP or Director of Accounting function, who oversees the entire accounting organization and who is well versed in technical accounting. The next level is the CFO, from which you can evolve into a Chief Operating Officer (COO), CEO or one of several other options.

Concluding Thoughts

The only other position I’d add to the list of corporate accounting professions is that of Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A). The reason I did not include this above is because I’ve only seen this at larger organizations. It is not really part of a core corporate accounting and financial reporting function per se, rather a supplemental function in organizations with heavy need for analytics.

This function also reports up to the CFO, sometimes through the Controller and sometimes through the VP or Director of Accounting in larger organizations. I have also seen independent heads of FP&A functions report directly to CFOs in gigantic organizations.

How do I know all this? I know all this because I have been heavily involved in understanding and reviewing each of these functions in various organizations. Remember, I was in a big four public accounting firm conducting audits all year long.

Corporate accounting is the backbone of any organization, and a career within it can be very lucrative. If you like to be hands on, are detail and numbers oriented and have passion for technical accounting (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles – GAAP), this may be a career you’d want to pursue as a CPA or soon to be CPA.

So what do you think about a career in corporate accounting and finance? Please leave your comments and ask questions using the form below…

~Sunil

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