In the quest to find great investments, most investors focus on earnings to gauge a company's financial strength. This is a good start, but earnings can be misleading and incomplete. To get a clearer understanding of a company's ability to earn money and reward you, the shareholder, it's often better to focus on cash flow. In this series, we tear apart a company's cash flow statement to see how much money is truly being earned and, more importantly, what management is doing with that cash.

Step on up, Ryder System (NYSE: R).                                                                                      

The first step in analyzing cash flow is to look at net income. Ryder System's net income over the past five years has been all over the place:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income $184 million $132 million $131 million $288 million $252 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Next, we add back in a few non-cash expenses like the depreciation of assets and adjust net income for changes in inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable -- changes in cash levels that reflect a company either paying its bills or being paid by customers. This yields a figure called cash from operating activities -- the amount of cash a company generates from doing everyday business.

From there, we subtract capital expenditures, or the amount a company spends acquiring or fixing physical assets. This yields one version of a figure called free cash flow, or the true amount of cash a company has left over for its investors after doing business. When a company runs a cash-flow deficit, money is pulled from savings or raised through debt or equity financing:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow ($367 million) $170 million $518 million $283 million $154 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash Ryder System is really pulling in each year. Next question: What is it doing with that cash?

There are two ways a company can use free cash flow to directly reward shareholders: dividends and share repurchases. Cash not returned to shareholders can be stashed in the bank, used to invest in other companies and assets, or used to pay off debt.

Here's how much Ryder System has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends $58 million $54 million $53 million $52 million $50 million
Share Repurchases $60 million $123 million $116 million $256 million $209 million
Total Returned to Shareholders $117 million $178 million $170 million $308 million $259 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

The company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. That's caused shares outstanding to fall:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (Millions) 51 52 55 56 59

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now, companies tend to be fairly poor at repurchasing their own shares, buying feverishly when shares are expensive and backing away when they're cheap. Does Ryder System fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

R

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Not too bad. There is quarter-to-quarter buyback volatility, but it doesn't look like market swings have dictated management's behavior. That's what you want to see. Given reasonable valuations, these repurchases have probably been a decent deal for shareholders.

Finally, I like to look at how dividends have added to total shareholder returns:

R

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned -13% over the last five years, which increases to -2% with dividends reinvested.

To gauge how well a company is doing, keep an eye on the cash. How much a company earns is not as important as how much cash is actually coming in the door, and how much cash is coming in the door isn't as important as what management actually does with that cash. Remember, you, the shareholder, own the company. Are you happy with the way management has used Ryder System's cash? Sound off in the comments section below.