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My first year as a controller 

One CPA’s perspective on transitioning from public accounting to corporate finance.
March 7, 2022

Jordan Hartman Headshot

By Jordan Hartman, CPA 

Lately, I often find myself looking back at my decision to leave public accounting. In fall 2020, I made the mental commitment to make a change in my career. Five years out from graduating college, I had achieved my goal of becoming a manager and thoroughly enjoyed my job, clients and coworkers. However, I was deeply affected by everything happening around me, as I’m sure many of you were. My decision had little to do with the pandemic, protests or the election — but all those things weighed on my mind and sparked a need for change, a new five-year plan, and something to work toward. Looking back, I think I questioned if my job was safe in the long term. 

The concern I felt seems trivial now given the state of the accounting profession. We have been blessed with a strong demand for our skills in one of the tightest labor markets in recent history. I ended up getting a great job working for a Fortune 500 manufacturer as a plant controller. I still enjoy my job and coworkers and couldn’t be happier with the transition, but 2021 was still a year full of firsts for me professionally. 

As another auditor-turned-controller, I’m here to give you my perspective on the transition. If you are looking at potentially making the same switch, I hope you find it enlightening. For others, I’m sure it will be a fun look in the mirror at their own careers. To everyone else, I guess just enjoy an honest attempt, hopefully, to capture my thoughts and feelings this past year. 

My first day 

It may seem silly to some, but I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of walking into someplace new. When I was an auditor going to a new client site, I always felt like a kid on Christmas getting to unwrap a new toy. That is something I miss about public accounting — the dynamic nature of the job. Even so, there is something comforting in returning to a familiar place every day, but it can’t beat the rush I felt on the first day I started my new role. 

The office halls and manufacturing floor seemed so shiny and new, at least to me, but the frosting on the cake was something I had dreamt of for years. Anyone in public accounting, especially in larger firms, will undoubtably be familiar with recent pre-pandemic trends in office design: an open floor plan designed around impromptu teaming and fostering collaboration and sacrificing individual office space.  

At the time I started my new role, I had been working from home for nine months and was looking forward to disconnecting my home and workspaces a bit more. So, when I say that I nearly cried as a fully grown man at seeing my first and ever office, know that it was something I had wanted for years, and thought may have become extinct during my time in public accounting. 

My first day was full of the usual, figuring out email and IT, etc. After nearly a week of finagling, I finally had my access to our enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and set up file sharing. After that, it felt like a blank canvas — I had little idea what my new role would entail. Sure, I understood technical accounting and was familiar with the work of reviewing documentation. But now I was the painter. I got to decide how I wanted to do the work. This was another one of the key selling points for me: finally getting the chance to build something that lasts outside of the churn of project-driven work.  

The next few months 

The first couple of months I was on autopilot a lot of the time; it reminded me a lot of when I was fresh out of college as a staff auditor. Life is full of deadlines and spinning plates, and for the moment, my goal was just to not miss any and keep everything moving. 

When I was an auditor, I prided myself on being a wizard with data and knowing how to work all my firm’s latest tools. After years with my clients, I knew how to manipulate spreadsheets and CSV files to get everything structured just so. Now, I was like a child in a dark room — I didn’t know where anything was coming from or how our ERP system worked. I just knew how the last guy did it and apparently that worked. As anyone with a need for control will appreciate, this could not stand. I spent many late nights digging into queries to understand just where all the information was coming from. 

After taking the time to get the month-to-month closing work in good order, I finally felt confident that I could do the basic functions of the job and do them well. I was ultimately amazed at how easily the routine work came to me. With all credit due to our ERP system, I was pleasantly surprised that reconciling all the plant’s GL accounts was not a more difficult task. After years of seeing the same work at multiple clients, I had numerous examples to draw on for best practices and started to make change after change in the documentation — which only made the job easier the month after. In the end, the things I worried about most with my new role ended up being the easiest to overcome. 

My victory in the immediate was undercut by what came next; that is, the question of what to do next. It made me realize how much structure and support I had in my previous role. While I was an auditor, there were times I felt like I was in the Wild West, out in the field at a client site trying to unravel a mess of accounting records. But the truth is, I always had a scheduler to tell me when I was working and who with. I had a playbook and technical guidance built out by a legion of professionals in all the various aspects of my job. Most of all, I had a routine that I was used to, like walkthroughs, interim testing, controls testing, year-end testing, reporting, and archive. Lather, rinse, repeat and on to the next one. I now look back at my previous work and think, “damn wasn’t that predictable.” Because the truth is, despite the wide range of clients I worked with and all the experience I gained, public accounting is not the shining land of dynamic work to industry’s drab predictability that I believed it to be. 

The truth is, I took this role because it was a position within the leadership of a manufacturing plant. Something I had always wanted to do in a “if only I could do things my way” sort-of sense. Now I had the opportunity, and most importantly the time, to be a leader. With a typical month lasting four weeks or so and, the month’s close with all its accompanied tasks and reporting taking up at best two of those, the rest of the month is mine to divvy out to various projects and priorities. 

I soon discovered not only was my new role not the Wild West, it was more like Congress — an established corporation with all its well-known protocols and a matrix of interlacing responsibilities. I spent the next few months introducing myself to various team leaders and charting my own role within the organization. 

Public accounting versus industry 

If I had to give a sales pitch to working in industry, I think one of the more important points is: Not everyone in the world is an accountant. After five years in audit, I had become accustomed to almost exclusively working with accountants. Sure, every now and then I found myself on the warehouse floor during an inventory count rubbing shoulders with someone who doesn’t understand the accrual world we live in. But most of my client conversations were with the accounting department and all my coworkers were accountants. 

The opportunity to work with leaders in other disciplines is something I did not realize I was missing until I started my new role. Getting to explain to our engineering lead how cost accounting works while they explain their expertise is not only engaging but important to keeping a rounded understanding of a business. Getting to visit the factory floor and experience where all the numbers are coming from is honestly very fulfilling — and helps give the work a sense of meaning. 

One of the things I always enjoyed about public accounting was feeling like I had an impact on the business. My interactions with clients had meaning and helped set an expectation for the firm’s brand. As such, I always prided myself on providing excellent customer service, making sure to do my best to keep audits running as smoothly as possible. 

Now, as a controller, my clients are the internal users of the information I am generating. However, like the saying goes, you can provide a manager a report, but you can’t make him read it. All the information in the world is just noise without an action attached. As a leader for my location, part of my responsibility is not just to provide information but also insight and the ability to provide recommendations with support. 

As I alluded to previously, I always felt one of my strengths as an auditor was effective communication with clients. This was not something that came easy to me as an introvert, but something I worked on through my years of introducing myself to strangers. It is a useful skill that served me well in my previous role. But, as I would find out shortly into my new role, there were certain gaps in my communication skills. In my previous role, I often gave presentations or talks on the engagements I was working on or some new topic being pushed by the firm. 

Now, however, being in a new environment with a vastly different culture and talking about information that was new to me, I struggled to present myself eloquently. Additionally, adapting accounting topics into terms suitable for non-finance individuals proved difficult. Certainly, it can be embarrassing to stumble through a topic, even on a Zoom call with no one else in the room physically with you. But, like all career achievements, the first time you get it right is incredibly rewarding. 

Truly, I could go on regaling all the little eccentricities of my first year outside public accounting. But I think the most important fact is that I don’t regret my decision. It was a terrifying choice — a severing of a career that I had sunk vast amounts of time into. I will always miss those I left behind and cherish the friendships I took away with me. I take with me a trove of experiences and understanding that I get to share with others. 

Ultimately, despite its reputation our profession can be very dynamic and there are so many opportunities for young accountants. It’s important that we keep pushing forward and make the most out of the work we put into the world. Don’t be afraid to make a change if it is the right time. Nothing is set in stone, and you’ll only ever regret the risk not taken. 

Jordan Hartman, CPA, is a financial plant controller at Corning Incorporated in Manassas. He previously spent five years working as an auditor for a Big Four public accounting firm.