Why a Boring Business Can Be Your Best Friend

Companies that are considered boring, such as industrials like Emerson Electric, Dover, and Illinois Tool Works, generate returns that are anything but boring.

Mar 17, 2014 at 12:00PM

In the investing world, boring businesses don't get much attention. The financial media obsesses over the next hot stock, preferring to ignore the seemingly sleepy companies that generate reliable profits year after year. Some of the high-quality companies that fly under the radar are pure industrials, such as Emerson Electric (NYSE:EMR), Dover (NYSE:DOV), and Illinois Tool Works (NYSE:ITW).

Emerson Electric, Dover, and Illinois Tool Works make products that are relied upon to build and maintain the country's infrastructure. Their businesses are almost a societal necessity, and yet, they don't get much attention. All they do is operate sound businesses and reward their shareholders with strong profits and dividend increases. It's time these three high-quality industrials get some love.

Slow and steady wins the race
In bull markets, financial pundits ignore slow-and-steady types of companies in the search for high-growth stocks. But strong companies in the industrial sector continue to prove their worth. That's because their products are so important to the economy and are crucial to several major markets, which include; automotive, energy, and housing.

This is evident in the strong growth of their underlying businesses. Emerson racked up record operating cash flow last year of $3.6 billion, which represented a 20% increase from the year before. Free cash flow grew 24%, which was also a record. Dover increased revenue and earnings by 8% and 19%, respectively, last year. Meanwhile, Illinois Tool Works generated $2.2 billion in free cash flow along with 13% earnings growth.

Much of this success is due to their continuing penetration into new markets. Emerson, Dover, and Illinois Tool Works are busy building out their businesses in international markets, particularly in underdeveloped nations. The emerging markets are becoming a bigger part of their businesses, which stands to reason since emerging-market growth outpaces growth in developed markets like North America.

For instance, Emerson's sales growth was flat in the United States last year, while sales in Latin America grew 11% and revenue in its Middle East and Africa segment rose 13%. Dover expects to continue reaping benefits from geographic expansion in its energy business this year, which is why management projects 5%-6% revenue growth in 2014. And, Illinois Tool Works showed strong growth in emerging markets in the fourth quarter. Its 10% organic sales growth in China and 15% growth in South America far outpaced its 3% revenue growth in North America.

The proof is in the pudding
As an indicator of their reliable success over many years, these so-called boring industrials hold some of the most striking and impressive track records of rewarding shareholders. Each of them has paid uninterrupted quarterly dividends for decades. Some have actually managed to increase their dividends each and every year, no matter the condition of the economy.

Emerson Electric has increased its dividend for 57 years in a row, at a compounded annual growth rate of 11% over this nearly six-decade period. Dover has an equally impressive dividend track record. Dover has grown its payout for an astounding 58 years in a row.

It's important for you to put these dividend streaks in the proper context. The global economy has seen many recessions, wars, and other bumps in the road. And yet, these companies continue to do what they do best: operate well-run businesses with products that are in strong demand each and every year.

The final takeaway
Emerson Electric, Dover, and Illinois Tool Works are classic examples of when boring companies generate exciting returns over time. While smaller, speculative stocks with questionable futures gain most of the attention of financial pundits, these great companies continue to do what they've done for decades.

Emerson Electric, Dover, and Illinois Tool Works churn out products that, while unexciting, are critical to our infrastructure and overall economy. In turn, they generate strong cash flow and have rewarded their shareholders with steady dividend growth for decades. That's why these high-quality companies are proving that they're anything but boring.

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Bob Ciura has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Emerson Electric Co. and Illinois Tool Works. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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