Houston, We Have Flat Earnings

When asked to envision a company in Houston whose operating results took a hit from fuel costs, you might first think of an oil company or a refiner. But with a fleet of 8,900 trucks to fuel, that description also applies only too well to Houston-based food distributor SYSCO (NYSE: SYY  ) .

For the most recent quarter, SYSCO reported earnings of $0.45 per share, versus analyst estimates of $0.42, and last year's $0.40. While sales were off 3.1%, to $8.9 billion, operating expenses fell an even greater 7.2%; all in all, the company seemed to gain there. Factor out the adjustments baked into those numbers, however, and earnings still beat estimates -- but declined a penny from last year.

Metric

Q2 2010 Earnings

Q2 2009 Earnings

Reported earnings

0.45

0.40

Insurance value adjustment

0.01

(0.05)

Earnings w/o adjustment

0.44

0.45

Source: SYSCO Q2 2010 earnings press release.

A primary reason to own this stock is the income from its growing dividend. SYSCO joins Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) , ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , and other blue-chip stocks as a member of the Indxis Dividend Achievers, a group of companies that have increased dividends for at least 10 consecutive years. SYSCO's dividend of $0.25 per quarter represents a 3.6% yield, competitive with a 10-year Treasury. A track record and a good yield are nice, but can the raises continue?

In SYSCO's case, the flattish earnings bear watching. Still, $0.45 of earnings easily covers a $0.25 dividend, with enough cushion to let the raises continue. Going forward, analysts predict mid-single-digit earnings growth for 2010 and 2011. The company has managed to generate earnings to comfortably cover the dividend and continue its string of dividend hikes, even during a stretch in whcih dining out wasn't a top spending priority.

SYSCO is by far the dominant player in the Food Wholesale industry. The next largest public company in the industry is United Natural Foods (Nasdaq: UNFI  ) , with a market cap less than one-tenth SYSCO's. Combine that dominance with cost-cutting measures such as truck routing to reduce fuel costs, and passing increased fuel costs to customers in the form of surcharges, and SYSCO is in a good position to ramp up earnings -- and those juicy dividend raises -- when the economy improves.

More on SYSCO:

Coca-Cola and SYSCO are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, and SYSCO are Income Investor choices. The Fool owns shares of Procter & Gamble and SYSCO.

Fool contributor Russ Krull owns shares of SYSCO. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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