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Operating Leverage


Operating leverage refers to a company’s fixed costs in relation to its variable costs. It measures the impact of a change in sales volume on the company’s operating income. High operating leverage means profits increase significantly with sales, however, it also indicates higher risk as fixed costs still need to be covered if sales decline.


The phonetic pronunciation of the term “Operating Leverage” is: Op-er-ay-ting Lev-er-ij

Key Takeaways

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  1. Operating Leverage is a critical financial concept used to measure a company’s potential to change profitability given a change in its sales. It is used to examine the breakeven point of a business, understanding the extent of fixed costs compared to variable costs, all of which influence the company’s operating risk.
  2. The higher a company’s operating leverage, the more the company is using fixed costs to finance its operations, meaning that the company relies more heavily on sales volumes for profits. High operating leverage can result in high profits if sales are healthy, and high losses if sales are poor. Conversely, a company with low operating leverage will see lesser impact on profits with the change in sales.
  3. Understanding operating leverage is not just important for internal company management, but also for investors as it can impact investment decisions. It provides an indication of how sensitive a company’s operating income is to its sales, giving ideas about earnings volatility. It also helps investors recognize a company’s risk level.


Operating leverage is essential in business and finance because it gives insights into a company’s fixed versus variable costs and measures the impact on operating income due to changes in the quantity sold. The significance of operating leverage lies in its ability to magnify profits or losses. A company with high operating leverage will see a substantial increase in operating income with a rise in sales and vice versa. It also helps businesses strategize and make better operational decisions to optimize profitability. Understanding the degree of operating leverage can aid in forecasting future profits and managing risks related to business cycles.


Operating leverage, at its heart, is a tool businesses use to gauge and measure risk versus reward, specifically how costs are affected relative to changes in sales volume. It’s a measure of how a company can generate growth in operating income with an increase in sales. If a company has a large amount of fixed costs, it will have high operating leverage. This kind of business model has its own unique set of risks and rewards. When sales increase, the fixed costs will be spread over a larger number of units resulting in lower unit costs and higher profits. Conversely, when sales decline, the fixed costs are spread over fewer units leading to higher unit costs and potentially operating losses. Operating leverage is used for understanding the fundamental nature of a company’s cost structure and its impact on profitability. When a company has high operating leverage, there’s a high potential for profits when demand for products or services increases, but conversely there’s also a high risk for losses when demand falls. By contrast, a company with low operating leverage – meaning that it has a larger proportion of variable costs – won’t see as dramatic a change in profits when sales fluctuate. Therefore, knowledge of a company’s operating leverage can help investors foresee the volatility of future earnings, and decide between investing in companies with high or low operating leverage based on their risk tolerance.


1. Manufacturing Industries: A classic example of operating leverage can be seen in manufacturing industries. For instance, car manufacturing companies like General Motors or Ford need to make significant initial investments in buildings, equipment, and machinery to produce cars. These are their fixed costs. However, if they can increase their car sales volume, the cost of manufacturing each car, the variable cost, decreases, implying higher operating leverage. 2. Airlines: Airlines illustrate high operating leverage as well. They have fixed costs such as the price of an airplane, pilot salaries, maintenance, hanger fees at airports etc. However, once the airline sells more than the break-even number of tickets, the additional revenue generated from selling extra seats drastically outweighs the small variable costs like food, fuel, and service on the plane for those extra passengers.3. SaaS Companies: Software as a service (SaaS) companies like Salesforce or Adobe also show clear examples of high operating leverage. These businesses have high initial development costs but minimal variable costs once the software is developed. After covering the initial costs, additional sales add significantly to the profit because the costs associated with adding a new user to their cloud-based services are small.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is Operating Leverage?

Operating leverage refers to the proportion of fixed costs that a company has in comparison to its variable costs. It’s a measure of how revenue growth translates into operating income growth. A company with a lot of operating leverage sees significant growth in operating income for every increase in sales.

How does Operating Leverage work?

Operating Leverage operates on the principle of fixed costs. If a business has higher fixed costs, it has higher operating leverage. As the company increases its sales volume, its fixed costs are spread across a larger number of units, reducing the cost per unit, which leads to higher operating income.

What is an example of high Operating Leverage?

A software development company is a good example of a business with high operating leverage. This is because most of their costs are centered around initial development and personnel costs and less so on manufacturing and selling physical units.

What indicates a high Operating Leverage?

High operating leverage is indicated by a larger proportion of fixed costs and a smaller proportion of variable costs. For every given unit of production, less cost is spent, which leads to a higher contribution margin and thus, higher profits.

How does Operating Leverage affect business risk?

Higher operating leverage means higher business risk as fixed costs must be paid regardless of the level of output. In a situation where output or sales are low, a firm with high operating leverage will still have to cover its high fixed costs, which could lead to losses.

What is the formula to calculate Operating Leverage?

Operating Leverage can be calculated using the formula: Operating Leverage = Contribution Margin / Operating Income. The Contribution Margin is calculated by subtracting variable costs from sales. The resulting figure is then divided by operating income.

Why is Operating Leverage important?

Operating leverage is important as it helps businesses to understand their cost structure and the impact of volume changes on operating income. It also aids in the strategic planning and pricing decision-making process. Well-managed operating leverage can lead to significant profitability.

Can Operating Leverage be negative?

No, Operating Leverage cannot be negative. It can be zero, meaning that all costs are variable, or it can be positive, meaning there are some fixed costs. But it cannot be negative, because fixed costs cannot be negative.

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