The path to becoming a corporate controller can take many different avenues. In this latest episode of CFO Weekly, we talk with Coulson Painter, Vice President and Corporate Controller at Caliber, a real estate private equity fund asset manager in Phoenix who got his start, surprisingly in tax before taking a controller position.
We talk about where he is today as a controller who got their start specializing in tax, how that has helped him as a financial leader, advice for someone new to the controller role, and so much more financial information.
From Tax Pro to Corporate Controller
While working on his studies in accounting at Brigham Young University, Coulson started taking some tax classes, along with courses in audit and finance reporting and found that he really enjoyed it. As graduation neared, he had some decisions to make in regards to where his career went, and he ultimately decided to focus on tax and become a tax professional, he earned a bachelor's degree and ended up getting a Master’s degree in tax.
This led to a career with Deloitte which taught him organizational skills as well as communication skills, and later, a jump to his current company, Caliber, as the Director of Tax. All through that career progression, he had in his head the admiration of the role of controller, and the ability to be in on the financial decision-making position for a business. He ultimately expressed those desires to his CFO, and three years into his role at Caliber, the controller job opened up and he jumped on it.
Challenges and Benefits of a Tax Background
As someone who went all-in on tax, it may come as a surprise that Coulson decided to pursue a career as a controller, but that change has come with a few challenges, but even more benefits.
Having a technical background in taxes, he had to learn to pivot rather quickly to the leadership role of controller. But the change and opportunity for growth was a good one. Having been a tax professional at Deloitte, he had different clients both big and small, and had to learn how to juggle a lot of competing priorities at once, something that has suited him well in his new role managing accounting.
“When I transitioned to Caliber, I viewed it as having just one client, and my job was to learn everything I could about each individual business, and each individual transaction," Painter said.
A thorough understanding of how different businesses work and all of the moving parts they contain was also a bonus. As opposed to being specialized in one single area, he got to see and attain a broad overall understanding of the business and how controllers work, which led naturally to the controller role.
Advice for New Controllers
Say you’re new to the controller role. You may be heading into your first financial reports, or audit as a controller, and it feels daunting. Like you’re being thrown into the deep end of the pool with no idea how you’re going to get back to the side.
Coulson had some great advice for those first-time controllers: "Be willing to learn from mistakes, learn from others, be teachable, and try to learn as much as possible,” he said.
His first piece of advice was to come at it with an open mind, a desire to learn, and the ability to admit mistakes. Nobody is perfect, nobody knows everything, and most of the time, you don't know what you don’t know. And it’s okay to admit that you don't have all of the answers.
As long as you’re willing to learn from your mistakes, you’ll be just fine. Be willing to learn from others, be teachable, and simply commit to learning as much as possible.
The other piece of advice he had was to break the role down and take it a day at a time. Controllers typically admit that it is a stressful job. But it does get easier. It won’t always be as stressful as it was on day one, or week one. While surprises will always pop up, and it will always be an intense job, it will get easier, and you won’t always feel lost.
So now you know what the transition to becoming a corporate controller might look like. There are many routes that lead to it, including for instance, a certified public accountant (CPA) with a CPA license looking to move up the ranks, etc.. Whatever the scenario might be, one thing is for certain, for all aspiring controllers these tips from Coulson will go a long way.