Scary Company, Great Investment

What's the single best investment you could have made in the past 50 years? Surely, it must be a highflier like Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) or Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , right? Nope. How about a market leader like Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) or Standard Oil? Keep trying. Could it be Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) , run by the greatest investor of all time? Surprisingly, no.

The answer is Altria Group (NYSE: MO  ) , formerly Philip Morris, one the world's largest cigarette manufacturers. A $1,000 investment in Philip Morris in 1957 would today be worth more than $12 million, compared with $160,000 had you invested in the S&P 500 average. No wonder Albert Einstein called compound interest "The eighth wonder of the world."

Altria holds one of the strongest brand names in the world, Marlboro, and through moat-like market protection, it's enjoyed earnings per-share growth of nearly 15% for the past half century. While that's certainly impressive, investors who focus only on sales or earnings growth -- or even just the appreciation of the stock price -- often overlook the big picture.

When scary's a good thing
Why has Altria done so well? For one thing, it's been involved in numerous high-profile lawsuits over the past 50 years, scaring the pants off investors and keeping the share price relatively low. Everyone worried so much about Altria that the stock often traded at absurdly low prices compared to other fast-growing companies. Yet the company continued to crank out profits, and it gave back most of those earnings to investors, in the form of dividends. Investors who reinvested those dividends back into the low-priced stock ended up making out like the Marlboro bandit.

Today, Altria is undergoing structural changes in an attempt to maximize shareholder value. On March 30 of this year, Altria spun off Kraft Foods, of which Altria owned 89%, attempting to free Kraft of the legal burden faced by the cigarette business. Just two weeks ago, Altria announced plans to spin off Philip Morris International, in a move to clear the international tobacco business from the legal and regulatory constraints facing its domestic counterpart, Philip Morris USA.

Whither Altria?
What lies ahead for the company? Now that it's shedding assets that carry less risk and fewer moral dilemmas, investors will undoubtedly shun the new domestic cigarette business. Should Foolish investors run for the exits? Remember, while the structure of the company has changed, the brand name that brought the company into the record books remains solid. On Sept. 16, CEO Louis Camilleri boosted the dividend by 8.7%, to a yield of nearly 5%. The new company will shed as much as $1 billion a year in excess costs, including its New York City headquarters. (Altria's moving to a cheaper Virginia location.) And it'll be able to begin the massive share buybacks it had forestalled until the future of its spinoffs became more certain.  

I think fellow Fools could make out quite well by ignoring the noise surrounding Altria. Instead, they should focus on what really matters, at the end of the day or the end of five decades: good, strong, predictable cash flows, purchased at a fair price. Even if Altria fails to continue its previous levels of growth, and gets bogged down by continued legal issues, the one-two punch of high dividends and a low stock price could still turn a seemingly high-risk company into one of the greatest investments of all time.

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