Saturday, May 15, 2010

Calculating Overhead

There are 3 components of cost. These 3 components of cost are material, labor and overhead. As a Part Time CFO, I see a lot of business owners eliminating overhead from their cost calculations. This can lead to operating losses and cash flow problems. Usually the reason the business owners misses overhead is they do not understand how to calculate overhead nor do they know how to incorporate overhead in their analysis.

The easiest way to calculate overhead is as a percentage of sales. Take all of the projected overhead expenses for the period you want to analyze. The period can be a month, quarter or year and divide these projected expenses by the amount of projected sales. As you go forward if sales are lower or higher than projections by 10% or more you should recalculate the overhead rate based on the new projected sales. The same recalculation needs to be done if your projected expenses are off higher or lower by 10% or more. This percentage needs to be applied to the sales dollars associated with each sales transaction or quote. You can also simply take last year’s actual results for overhead and sales and perform the same calculation on actual results instead of projected results. I like to use projected results. Other than sales there are other ways to calculate overhead using labor dollars or labor hours, but I like to use sales. However for the Trades (General Contractors, Painters, plumbers, electricians etc…) and manufacturers I like to use labor hours. That way we can come up with overhead costs per direct labor hour and all you have to do is estimate the labor hours for a job and you know your costs.

There are many schools of thought regarding the calculation of overhead and incorporating overhead in cost calculations. Some do not like accounting for overhead in their cost calculations because they say no matter how much the sales price exceeds material and labor, the overhead will begin to be paid and that is their only objective. I say a couple of things about that. First, sales better be high enough otherwise if you employ this school of thought you will guarantee yourself you will not be profitable. Even if sales exceed material, labor and variable overhead by just a few dollars you will eventually pay for all of the fixed overhead but the sales must be high enough and that is a huge risk. Second, an argument can certainly be made that a sale that at least covers some overhead is better than no sale at all, however are you sure there is no other sale out there that you are not making that covers more of your overhead or all of your overhead or do you justify giving your product and service away just to make a sale knowing it is covering some overhead?

Note I added the term Variable Overhead above. Sometimes there are expenses that a business owner calls overhead, which can be considered overhead but are actually expenses that are variable to sales. Expenses such as credit card fees or gas where a service performed is going to require going to a specific location need to be identified as variable. Variable overhead should be incorporated as part of the expense component deducted from the selling price to determine profit before fixed overhead.

My view on overhead is that the business owner needs to know what the overhead component of their product or service is so that they know what their true bottom line is on each and every transaction/quote. Unless your expense and/or revenue projections are way off, knowing the true bottom line on every transaction will give you the piece of mind that all costs are accounted for and that the bottom line on the transaction/quote is credible. At the end of the day the business owner can use their own discretion as to whether a sale that does not entirely cover fixed overhead is worth making. If it were me I must be extremely confident that there is no other sale to make that will give me a better return before I would accept a sale that only partially covered fixed overhead. For example let’s say you know with reasonable certainty that your business is in a state of low demand maybe due to seasonality or economic conditions. If I am convinced there is no other sale out there that is going to give me a better return or if I think the customer is worthwhile to keep because the customer will give me long term potential at higher profit margins then I would make the justification that I am at least covering some fixed overhead. Otherwise make sure your selling price covers all three components of cost which once again are Material, Labor and Overhead.

Calculating Overhead is one of many important CFO Services.