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  • Writer's picturePeak Frameworks Team

What is Business Overhead? Operating Expenses and Key Definitions

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What is Business Overhead?

Business overhead costs refer to ongoing expenses that are not directly tied to creating a product or service.

Overhead, also known as operating expenses, are the routine costs incurred by a business that isn't directly tied to a specific business activity. Unlike direct costs, which can be directly traced to a product or service, overheads encompass all the behind-the-scenes expenses that keep the business wheels turning.

Source: Patriot Software

These overhead costs are usually split into three types:

Fixed Overheads

These are expenses that remain constant regardless of the level of output. Think of them as the unavoidable costs of doing business. They include rent, insurance, and salaries of permanent staff. A company such as Apple, for instance, pays for the rental of its retail stores. No matter how many iPhones are sold, the rent doesn't change.

Fixed Cost vs. Variable Cost
Source: The Balance

Variable Overheads

These expenses fluctuate in direct proportion to output levels. In other words, the more you produce, the higher these costs become. They include utilities, raw material costs, and direct labor costs. Consider a restaurant such as McDonald's, which would experience an increase in utility costs (like electricity and water) as it serves more customers. On the flip side, if business slows down, so do these costs.

Semi-variable Overheads

These costs have both fixed and variable components. An example is a cell phone bill with a fixed base charge and additional costs based on usage. An e-commerce company like Amazon could be a good example, which pays for server space (fixed cost) but also experiences variable costs as website traffic and sales increase.

Importance of Overheads in Business Operations

Understanding overheads is not just a theoretical exercise. These costs directly influence pricing decisions and profitability. A business with high overhead costs may need to price its goods or services higher to maintain a profit margin. This decision could have far-reaching impacts on the business's competitive positioning and customer demand.

Overheads also significantly impact financial statements, shaping key ratios that investors and creditors closely watch. For instance, high overheads would depress the operating margin, a ratio often used to assess operational efficiency. In a scenario where two companies have the same revenue, the one with lower overheads would have a higher operating margin, making it more attractive to stakeholders.

Overhead Analysis

Accurate overhead allocation is critical for understanding product profitability, guiding pricing decisions, and designing cost control strategies. Overhead analysis is the process of examining how these costs behave and allocating them to different business activities.

Consider the Activity-Based Costing (ABC) method used by many manufacturing firms like General Motors. Instead of allocating overheads based on a single measure such as direct labor hours, ABC assigns costs to specific activities involved in producing a product.

This approach provides a more nuanced understanding of cost distribution, enabling more accurate product pricing and identifying opportunities for cost savings.

Strategies for Managing Overheads

Keeping overheads in check is key to maintaining profitability and ensuring financial stability. This often requires a combination of strategic cost control techniques and operational efficiency measures. These can include:

Outsourcing Non-core Activities

Non-core functions that are not part of a company's competitive advantage can often be performed more efficiently and cost-effectively by external providers. IBM, for example, after conducting a value analysis, decided to outsource its PC manufacturing to Lenovo, leading to significant savings in overhead costs.

Renegotiating Supplier Contracts

Periodic renegotiation of contracts can result in reduced prices, improved terms, or additional services. This is a particularly effective strategy for businesses that have significant bargaining power with suppliers.

Optimizing Energy Use

With energy costs often making up a significant portion of variable overheads, adopting energy-efficient practices can result in substantial savings. Google, known for its large data centers, has made a considerable investment in renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies, significantly reducing its energy costs.

Regular Overhead Audits

These audits can identify areas of waste, inefficiency, and overpayment, leading to actionable insights for cost reduction.

Overheads and Business Scalability

The relationship between overheads and business growth cannot be overstated. Companies with a low overhead cost structure can scale more rapidly and profitably. Conversely, high overheads can become a significant barrier to growth, as the business would need to generate a much higher volume of sales to cover these costs and achieve profitability.

Tech giants like Google and Facebook provide a striking example of the advantages of a low-overhead business model. Their business operations rely heavily on digital infrastructure, which can be scaled up with relatively low incremental costs. This enables them to expand rapidly while maintaining high profit margins.

By strategically scaling overheads in line with business expansion, businesses can avoid overstretching their resources and ensure sustainable growth.

Technology and Overhead Management

Technological advancements have provided powerful tools for tracking and managing overheads. Cloud-based accounting software and AI-powered cost analysis tools enable businesses to monitor these costs in real time, gain insights into cost trends, and make proactive cost management decisions.

Microsoft, for example, leverages AI for predictive analysis of cost trends. This allows them to anticipate cost increases, identify cost-saving opportunities, and make informed decisions about resource allocation and cost management.


Understanding and effectively managing overheads is a vital skill for any financial professional. These costs can significantly influence a business's profitability, competitiveness, and growth potential. By integrating effective cost-control techniques and leveraging technology, businesses can not only stay profitable but also scale sustainably.


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