Realty Income (NYSE:O), one of the largest real estate investment trusts, is well known for its focus on retail properties and for its reliable monthly dividends. However, there are some things about the company you may not be familiar with. How many of these seven things did you already know?

1. Realty Income started as a single Taco Bell

William and Joan Clark founded Realty Income in 1969 and acquired their first property, a Taco Bell, in 1970.

Most of the company's founding principles are still in use today, such as avoiding excessive debt, especially mortgages, and to focus on businesses that need their physical location. Realty Income also looks for businesses that are profitable enough to withstand a significant drop in sales and still cover their rent.

A man seated before a laptop gives a surprised expression.

Here are some things you might be surprised to learn about Realty Income. Image Source: Getty Images.

2. Realty Income is the largest net-lease REIT

With nearly 5,000 properties, Realty Income is the largest net-lease REIT in the market. If you're not familiar with the net-lease structure, it generally refers to freestanding single-tenant properties that are leased to their tenants on a long-term basis. Tenants agree to cover variable expenses such as property taxes, building insurance, and certain maintenance costs, and also typically agree to annual rent increases, or "escalators."

This structure results in minimal vacancies and a predictable, growing income stream. And as the largest REIT of its kind, Realty Income has the advantages that come with scale, such as more efficient operations and better financial flexibility.

3. Realty Income does well in tough economic conditions

Because of its net-lease strategy, and its low debt level, Realty Income is well positioned to not only survive but also to thrive during tough times.

During the Great Recession, for example, Realty Income's occupancy never dropped below 96%, and the company continued to increase its dividend several times per year. And thanks to its high credit rating and financial flexibility, the company was able to complete $700 million in opportunistic acquisitions in 2010 while property values were depressed.

4. Realty Income has paid more than 560 consecutive dividends

As of this writing, Realty Income has paid 563 consecutive monthly dividends to shareholders, over almost 47 years. The company has increased its payment at an annualized rate of 4.7% since its NYSE listing in 1994 and has increased the dividend for 79 consecutive quarters. In fact, Realty Income is a member of the S&P High Yield Dividend Aristocrats Index for its excellent dividend history.

5. Realty Income produces high returns with low volatility

Since listing on the NYSE, Realty Income has generated 16.4% annualized total returns for investors -- handily beating the Dow Jones, S&P 500, and Nasdaq, which returned an average of 10.2%, 9.6%, and 9.5%, respectively.

Perhaps even more impressive, the company produced these high returns without excessive volatility. In fact, the standard deviation of Realty Income's returns was less than that of all three indexes.

Realty Income volatility since 1994.

Image source: Realty Income investor presentation.

6. Realty Income is more than just a retail REIT

Realty Income is known as a retail REIT, and for good reason. Most of its properties are occupied with some of the best-known retail businesses in the U.S., such as Walgreens, Dollar General, AMC Theaters, and Wal-Mart, just to name a few. In fact, nearly 97% of the company's properties are retail-oriented.

Many investors are therefore surprised to learn that retail properties account for less than 80% of Realty Income's rental revenue. Roughly 20% comes from a combination of industrial, office, and agricultural properties. Even though these properties make up just over 3% of the company's total, they are typically larger facilities and therefore generate more revenue per property. This adds a nice element of diversification to Realty Income's revenue stream.

7. 2016 was Realty Income's highest-growth year yet

Realty Income went into 2016 expecting to make about $750 million in acquisitions. However, through a combination of low interest rates and a high stock price, the company's cost of capital fell to record low levels and stayed there. In fact, Realty Income increased its full-year acquisition guidance in every quarter and still ended up beating its most optimistic projections by investing $1.86 billion in more than 500 properties, making 2016 the company's highest-growth year yet in terms of investment volume.

The company is projecting $1 billion in acquisitions for 2017, but with $371 million in the first quarter alone, Realty Income could be in for another busy year.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.