What Is a Profit Center?

A profit center is a branch or division of a company that directly adds or is expected to add to the bottom-line profitability of the entire organization. It is treated virtually as a separate, standalone business, responsible for generating its revenues and earnings; its profits and losses are calculated separately on accounting balance sheets.

Peter Drucker is credited with coining the term "profit center" in 1945.

How Does a Profit Center Work?

Profit centers are crucial in determining which units are the most and the least profitable within an organization, functioning as a way to differentiate between certain revenue-generating activities. This facilitates a more accurate analysis and cross-comparison between divisions. The analysis of profit centers is required to determine the future allocation of available resources and to decide whether certain activities should be cut entirely.

The managers or executives in charge of profit centers have decision-making authority related to product pricing and operating expenses. They also face considerable pressure, as they must ensure that their division's sales from products or services outweigh the costs—that their profit center produces profits year after year, either by increasing revenue or decreasing expenses or both.

Real-World Examples of Profit Centers

At the retailer Walmart, different departments selling different products could be divided into profit centers for analysis. For example, clothing could be considered one profit center, while home goods could be a second profit center. In addition, departments that rotate on a seasonal basis, such as the garden center or sections relating to holiday decor, can be examined as profit centers to separate the seasonal contribution of these departments from those with a year-round contribution.

The computer giant Microsoft has a wide variety of profit centers, ranging from hardware to software to digital services. In analyzing these large sources of revenue, it may choose to separate the funds produced from the sale of its Windows operating system from that of other software suites, such as Microsoft Office, or other hardware sectors, such as the Xbox gaming console. This allows the profitability of different products to be examined and correlated based on associated cost and revenue comparisons.

Profit Centers Versus Cost Centers

Not all units within an organization can be tracked as profit centers. This is particularly the case for many departments that provide an essential service within an organization: the research department within a broker-dealer, the auditing/compliance human resources department of a law firm, the inventory control department of a clothing retailer, the human resources and customer service. These divisions have their own costs but do not generate their own revenues. As a result, they are known as cost centers.

While profit centers are operated with a focus on bringing in revenue, cost centers are not associated with the direct generation of profits. Cost centers can also include various support departments, such as IT support, human resources, or customer services, which are critical to business functions but do not hold a specific responsibility to make money.

Key Takeaways

  • A profit center is a branch or division of a company that directly adds to the corporation's bottom-line profitability.
  • A profit center is treated as a separate business, with revenues accounted for on a standalone basis and balance sheet.
  • The opposite of a profit center is a cost center, a corporate division or department that does not generate revenue.

The Bottom Line

The concept of a profit center is the development of a framework to facilitate optimal resource allocation and profitability. To optimize profits, management may decide to allocate more resources to highly profitable areas while reducing allocations to less profitable or loss-inducing units.