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The perfect accounting department structure changes with each evolution of your business... but one thing is certain: you can't do everything.

I'm willing to bet that burnout and missed deadlines that brought you here. After all, finance leaders are notoriously hesitant to add headcount. As the infamous quote goes, “We are cursed, for we can see the numbers.”

This article is custom-made to help you justify those hiring decisions and grow your accounting team the right way.

The Importance of Choosing the Right Structure

There are very few departments that rely on order and organization as much as accounting.

These are the people who ensure you’re compliant, prepared for the necessary financial steps, and equipped with the numbers you need to make informed decisions.

If that isn't enough to convince you, consider how many more data-backed insights you'll have into your business.

More data means more insights, which reap short-, medium-, and long-term benefits.  

Accounting Department Functions

The accounting department is responsible for many core financial functions, including:

To get all of these things right, it takes time, attention to detail, and specialized knowledge.

Anyone who's tried to spin all of these plates themselves will be aware that doing it alone is difficult at best, then impossible once you hit a certain rate of growth.

Let’s look closer at the core functions of the accounting department.

If you’re simply looking for team-building advice, you can jump down to the functional advice section; if you’re relatively new to this world, you’ll benefit from reading the following.

Bookkeeping

Bookkeeping is the process of recording your financial information, including:

  • Sources of revenue
  • Accounts payable
  • Accounts receivable
  • Losses
  • Including relevant amounts, dates, and references

Bookkeepers track entries, chronologically, using documents such as sales receipts, purchase orders, and invoices. 

The accounting cycle has 8 steps; however, bookkeeping is primarily concerned with the first four:

  1. Analyzing financial transactions and allocating each one to the appropriate account
  2. Creating journal entries 
  3. Posting entries to the general ledger 
  4. Performing a reconciliation at the end of each period 

Accurate records form the foundation of financial health and facilitate smart and timely decision-making. Plus, having a good bookkeeper makes everyone’s lives easier when the tax man comes around.

Payroll

Payroll tasks include:

  • Making payments to employees
  • Paying taxes on their behalf
  • Keeping records of deductions, incentives, payments, and company benefits

Let's look at an example.

Gerald and his pal Brett set up a business as a partnership, and they've brought on one in-house employee to take care of their finances.

The irony? The only person they need to run payroll for is their accountant. If they don't, they're subject to hefty fines and penalties.

For sole proprietors and partnerships, the owner(s) don't need to run payroll for themselves, but they do for anyone with a contract. When it comes to limited liability companies and corporations, you'll need to run payroll for yourself, your directors, and your employees.   

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Financial Statements 

Creating financial statements is like getting blood work done; a necessary evil for good (organizational) health.

They inform investors and decision-makers about profits, cash flow, debts, and growth. Examples of financial statements include the following:

Stakeholders use these formal records to measure how effectively cash, assets, liabilities, and equity are being managed. If your business is in trouble, you should be able to spot it, troubleshoot, and problem-solve in time — provided your accounts are in order. Creditors, auditors, and the IRS also refer to these reports to measure profitability and ensure compliance.

Internal Controls

Strong financial controls are essential for compliance, security, managing resources, and an organization's long-term sustainability.

Refusing to create internal controls creates an inevitable risk of fraud or major error that could get a business owner and directors in serious financial and legal trouble.

Corporate Treasury

The treasury team is responsible for ensuring a company has sufficient cash to meet its immediate needs. This includes:

  • Conducting intensive forecasting activities
  • Optimizing the use of credit
  • Reducing debt
  • Locating the best investment opportunities

Tax Returns

One of the easiest ways to shut down your business is by messing up the annual tax return, incurring mammoth fines, and not being able to get cash flow back on track.

Unless you're a super small sole proprietorship with minimal overhead, it's usually worth hiring a certified public accountant (CPA) to oversee tax preparation and filing.

Better to be safe than sorry, as the old saying goes.

Accounting Department Roles

Taking a strategic approach to business is one of the smartest ways to build systems and processes into your company that prime it for long-term profitability. The way you structure and build your finance department is no different.

These are some of the key accounting roles:

  • Chief Financial Officer: That would be you. Working directly with the CEO and directing all financial elements of a company: setting policies, developing financial and operational strategies, improving operational efficiency, and using reports to make decisions.
  • Treasury Manager: Monitors regulatory changes, enforces financial policies, and maintains relationships with creditors and investors.
  • Controller: Prepares monthly reports, generates financial statements, and oversees payroll, as well as managing daily operations (including staff) and taking charge of compliance.
  • Accountant: Manages the general ledger, prepares day-to-day reports, handles taxes, and processes payroll. 
  • Clerk: Data entry, including posting cash receipts, maintaining Excel spreadsheets or running accounting software, and printing checks. Many smaller companies have two clerks, one for accounts payable and another for accounts receivable. 

Other common accounting roles include:

However, these positions tend to get added once the organization has grown into a more mature position.

How Finance Roles Interact

The smaller your business, the more likely you are to rely on a few people or an outsourced provider to take care of every accounting duty.

As you grow, the workload significantly increases, and you'll need to hire qualified individuals for each role and establish a hierarchy. I know what you’re thinking: finally, the good stuff!

Keep reading for my guide to growing your finance department along with your company.

Choosing Your Company's Finance Department Organizational Structure

Your company’s revenue, age, and size will invariably dictate the structure and requirements of your finance department.

It goes without saying that a startup generally won’t need, or have access to, the same resources as multinational organizations, so keep in mind that none of this information is one-size-fits-all.

Other common factors include:

  • The industry you operate in
  • How old your business is
  • How many employees you have
  • Number of geographic locations

All play into how you build and structure your finance team.

Let’s break down how one of the biggest factors - a company’s age and stage - can affect the structure of its finance department.

Startup

In most cases, startups focus on growth and scalability with the goal being to develop a business model that can generate high profits. A smaller headcount usually leads to founders and key personnel wearing many hats.

While you share CFO or Treasurer duties with other functions, consider investing in powerful accounting software to keep the information centralized.

As growth picks up, most of your finance team may be outsourced to specialist providers. As a startup, your main financial concerns are mostly:

  • Keeping payroll moving on time while complying with tax withholding regulations.
  • Having a keen eye and strict overview of the company’s cash flow, which includes payables and receivables.
  • Monitoring company spend to ensure unreasonable expenses aren’t created during your growth phase.

If you're experiencing massive and rapid growth, it’s worthwhile to set an accounting department hiring plan and execute it as soon as workloads become unsustainable.

Small Business

The term “small business” can be a bit of a misnomer.

In the U.S., the Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as one with less than 500 employees... which includes 99.9% of all businesses in the United States.

Consider that, the strategic goals of a small business will depend on the owner(s)’ goals, but profitability is always a central objective. As your business grows, you’ll need to consider a fully-fledged finance department more seriously.

Payroll specialists and accounting managers can keep smaller tasks moving, such as setting up reporting dashboards to keep an eye on KPIs. At this point, the CFO and controller can focus on the bigger strategic picture, including departmental or operational reporting.

If you've gotten to this stage without a finance department, it's likely time to implement a senior finance professional to help with the implementation of strategy and policies.

Large Businesses

Large businesses, as in those with more than 500 employees and locations around the globe, usually target expansion into new markets and efficiency (or at least cost reduction).

If it hasn’t already been done, you’ll be looking to streamline and optimize your organizational structure. A key goal is to allow the C-Suite, and the CFO specifically, to focus on long-term strategies. Consider a VP of Finance to oversee the financial health of the business, including financial planning and reporting, as well as compliance and risk management

Key goals for larger businesses depend on company objectives, but they can include the following:

  • Centralizing key operational tools: If your business isn’t leveraging the power of an ERP, the subject will inevitably come up. Having the input of an expert finance team will go a long way in helping with ERP implementation and setting up the company for success and growth.
  • Mergers and acquisitions: As part of corporate strategy, merging with or acquiring entities could be a major focus for growth and expansion. In these cases, your finance leaders will be critical in all stages, from planning to integration. This includes conducting due diligence and financial modeling.

Delving Deeper Into the Senior Accounting Team

Below we answer some of the most burning questions operators have regarding accounting department structure.

When Does It Make Sense to Hire a CFO?

If you feel like your grasp of finance isn't strong enough to take on the CFO title for yourself, that's okay. It's better to admit your weaknesses and build a team around you than try to fit a square peg in a round hole. When it comes to choosing when to hire a CFO, sooner is usually better.

All companies have one thing in common — they need to make money to stay in business. Strategic financial planning and data-driven reporting lie at the heart of every successful business, and hiring a CFO is a surefire way to make sure your startup hits the ground running. 

CFO vs. Controller: What’s the Difference?

The CFO is at the top of the finance department's structural hierarchy. While the former needs to be zoomed out to see the bigger picture to understand how to refine and improve, the latter is concerned with optimizing the company's day-to-day operations.

Controller vs. Accounting Manager: What’s the Difference?

In smaller organizations, financial controllers tend to wear two hats and might manage a small team of accountants and clerks. However, it's prudent for larger operations to hire accounting managers to manage staff and leave controllers to focus on budgets, forecasts, and other critical reports. 

Sculpting a Turbo-Charged Finance Department

Whether you’re running the finance department of a small business or a rapidly growing tech company, the number of ways you can structure your finance department will always have nuance depending on your specific needs. 

The first question to ask yourself is whether you're the right CFO for the job or if hiring for the role would put you in a better position for growth. From there, you can develop a strategy that ensures each accounting duty is performed by the right person, with the perfect accounting department hierarchy in place.

Simon Litt
By Simon Litt

Simon Litt is the editor of The CFO Club, specializing in covering a range of financial topics. His career has seen him focus on both personal and corporate finance for digital publications, public companies, and digital media brands across the globe.