Staples Gets It

Hey, I know it's tough to be Professor Positive about business these days, especially if you watch the tube. Michael Eisner is out as CEO of Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) , Martha Stewart's fate hangs in the balance as a jury deliberates her involvement in the ImClone Systems (Nasdaq: IMCL  ) scandal, and the FBI has busted alleged corporate crooks Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom and Jeff Skilling of Enron.

Is there anybody in the executive suite looking out for the common shareholder these days? Yep. Fools, meet Staples (Nasdaq: SPLS  ) . The office supplies superstore this morning reported that fourth-quarter net income rose 29% to $212 million ($0.42 a share) vs. the same period last year. Full-year net income jumped by 10% to $490 million. Most importantly, the company reported more than $700 million in free cash flow for the full year.

And what's management planning to do with the moolah? Give it back to shareholders, of course. Staples will begin by paying out a dividend of $0.20 a stub on May 17 to shareholders of record as of April 26. Additionally, the company will use excess cash to buy back up to $400 million of its shares during 2004.

As if to top it all off, Staples also filed its full-year 10-K report with the SEC this morning. Companies have up to 90 days after the end of their fiscal year to do that, so management could have put it off a while.

I'll resist breaking out into a horrible rendition of R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People," but it's hard to not smile as I write this, and I'm not even a Staples shareholder.

Why do I care? Because it has become commonplace for companies to only meet the minimum requirements for shareholders, instead of treating them like owners. Want proof? Take a look at the last 10 companies whose earnings we covered here at Fool.com.

All of them publish their earnings press releases, but the real reports filed with the SEC -- the 10-Ks and 10-Qs -- are absent. Now, no one's doing anything illegal here... far from it. But it's obviously nicer for shareholders to see a company's financials as soon as possible, rather than having to wait until the deadline looms. There are no dividend payers on the list, either. And only six of the 10 included a cash flow statement with their press release.

Look, I'm not accusing these slowpokes of wrongdoing. Not in the least. But that doesn't mean I can't applaud when a growing firm decides to share the love with its shareholders.

So, Staples, take a bow. You deserve a very Foolish tip of the belled cap.

Do you get any love from your investments? No? TryMotley Fool Income Investorfree for 30 days. There you can find plenty of companies willing to share their wealth with you.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned here.


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