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Apple, Starbucks and Whole Foods: Dividend Aristocrats of the Future?

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Dividend aristocrats are a select group of companies that have been able to increase their dividends over the last 25 consecutive years or more. Understandably, this rock-solid trajectory means they are among the best regarded dividend growth names in the market. Foolish investors should always be on the lookout for the next dividend aristocrats because not only do they form the bedrock of any solid portfolio, but historically dividends have made a big portion of long term investment returns. We all know companies like Procter and Gamble have long been considered solid dividend-paying names but let's take a look at why Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) , Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) and Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM  )  might just have the fundamental strength and financial resources to become dividend aristocrats in the years to come.

Apple´s growing iDividends
Due to its dynamism and cyclicality, the tech sector is not usually considered fertile ground for dividend growth companies. But times change and many companies in the sector have secured solid competitive positions and unquestionable financial strength over the last years. In fact, a select few are building long and reliable track records of dividend growth.

IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , for example, has increased dividends over the last 18 consecutive years, and 2013 marked the tenth consecutive double-digit dividend increase with a 13% hike. In addition to this, "Big Blue" has implemented a truly spectacular share repurchase program on top of its past repurchases whereby the company has reduced its share count by a third since the beginning of 2000.

Apple may not have the same track record as IBM regarding dividend payments, but the company´s financial strength is unquestionable. In addition to having nearly $147 billion in cash and liquid investments as of Sept. 28 Apple generated nearly $53.7 billion in cash flows from operations over the 12 months ended on Sept. 28, and investments in fixed assets absorbed only $8.2 billion of the companies' cash flow. This allowed Apple to allocate almost $10.6 billion to dividends and $22.9 billion to share repurchases in the last year.

The company owns the most valuable brand in the world according to Interbrand, and initial sales and engagement data for this shopping season is looking remarkably encouraging for the company. Apple yields 2.3% in dividends and has a comfortably low payout ratio around 29% of earnings.

Hot and caffeinated dividends from Starbucks
Starbucks has a relatively young dividend history; the company started distributing regular dividends in 2010. On the other hand, the coffee powerhouse has not been wasting any time when it comes to dividend growth: what started as $0.1 quarterly dividend per share in 2010 has now turned into $0.26 per share, including a big increase of 24% for 2013.

Brand differentiation and a unique customer experience are invaluable competitive assets for the company, generating premium prices for its products and superior profit margins for shareholders. Starbucks is one of the most innovative players in its industry, and the company is growing into new areas like specialized tea, pastry, and premium juice with acquisitions like Teavana, La Boulange, and Evolution Fresh, respectively.

Starbucks is firing on all cylinders; revenues for its most recent quarter ended September 20, 2013 increased by 13% compared to the same period a year ago on the back of 588 new stores and a strong increase of 7% in global comparable-store sales. Earnings per share grew by a remarkable 34% year over year during the period.

The company is planning to open approximately 1,500 new stores in fiscal 2014, 750 of them in the China/Asia-Pacific region. Starbucks has abundant opportunities for expansion in emerging markets, and product innovation is a great way to increase sales and store profitability at the same time.

The company pays a 1.3% dividend yield and the payout ratio is still quite low at 39% of earnings. Keeping the company´s growth prospects in mind, Starbucks can continue serving hot dividend growth for years to come.

Fresh and healthy dividends with Whole Foods
Whole Foods has been one of the most remarkable success stories in the grocery sector over the last several years; the company is a major beneficiary of the natural and organic foods movement, and a talented management team has translated growing demand rapid dividend growth for investors.

What started as a $0.0375 quarterly dividend in 2004 has now turned into $0.12 after several consecutive increases, including a 20% increase for 2013. The dividend yield of 0.9% is still quite modest, but the payout ratio in the area of 27% allows for yummy dividend increases over the coming years.

Whole Foods is offering more discounts, matching competitor's prices and adding lower-cost brands to its products assortment to expand into new markets. In this context, management reduced sales guidance for the coming quarter, comparable-store sales are expected to be in the range of 5.5% to 7% versus previous guidance of 6.5% to 8%.

But the company still owns a leading brand in the organic foods business and a reputation for quality. Management is well known for its culture of innovation and efficiency and Whole Foods has profit margins of 6.7% at the operating level, well above the industry average of 3% according to data from Morningstar.

Even if growth slows down a bit as the business matures and competition increases, this high quality organics grocery still has unquestionable financial strength and plenty of room for expansion due to its relatively small store base of 367 stores.

Bottom line
Becoming a dividend aristocrat requires time to build a 25-year track record of dividend growth. Apple, Starbucks and Whole Foods still have a long way to go before they can join that select group. However, they appear to have the fundamental quality and financial soundness to continue raising dividends for years to come, so they may easily become dividend aristocrats in the future.

Dividend stocks can make you rich
One of the dirty secrets that few finance professionals will openly admit is the fact that dividend stocks as a group handily outperform their non-dividend paying brethren. The reasons for this are too numerous to list here, but you can rest assured that it’s true. However, knowing this is only half the battle. The other half is identifying which dividend stocks in particular are the best. With this in mind, our top analysts put together a free list of nine high-yielding stocks that should be in every income investor’s portfolio. To learn the identity of these stocks instantly and for free, all you have to do is click here now.

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