With great business advantages come great long-term stock returns. The company doesn't have to cheat -- just tip the scales in its own favor with the help of regular business tools.
We asked a panel of your fellow investors here at The Motley Fool to share their best examples of business advantages that almost feel like cheating -- even though all of these companies play inside the lines. Read on to see why our experts selected Williams Partners LP (NYSE:WPZ), Walgreens Boots Alliance (NASDAQ:WBA), and NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE).
Light years ahead of its peers
Sean Williams (NextEra Energy): When looking for companies that offer colossal business advantages, the utility sector is not where you expect to wind up. But when it comes to long-term, low-cost advantages, no company comes close to NextEra Energy.
The electric utility industry is already popular among low-risk and income-seeking investors because it offers a basic-need product -- electricity. But this can make it somewhat difficult to differentiate one electric utility from the next. With NextEra Energy, there's no mistaking its head-and-shoulders advantage over its peers: its usage of alternative energy.
Though alternative energy projects cost a lot of money upfront, it also puts NextEra well ahead of its peers who'll be transitioning away from coal-powered facilities and toward greener energy sources in the years to come. According to NextEra, it generated more energy from wind and solar than any other electric utility on the planet in 2015, with wind-generating capacity of 12,560 MW as of May 2016. Throughout 2016, it generated nearly half (49%) of its electricity from natural gas, 26% from nuclear, and about 20% from wind, making it among the greenest companies on the planet. This will lead to substantially lower costs for NextEra, as well as happier customers, since their bills should be below the national average.
Also working in the company's favor is that most of its energy business is regulated. On one hand, not being able to pass along rate increases whenever it wants, and having to get rate-hike approval from each state's regulatory commission, might seem like a nuisance. But it's actually good news, since it leaves NextEra only minimally exposed to fluctuations in wholesale electricity prices. In other words, NextEra's cash flow and profits tend to be highly predictable, which Wall Street and investors tend to like.
When it comes to electric utilities, there's NextEra Energy and everyone else.
"Corner stores." Yes, it's a thing. Yes, it matters.
Anders Bylund (Walgreens Boots Alliance): When was the last time you visited a Walgreens store that wasn't located on the corner of two streets with fairly significant vehicle traffic? Chances are, that was a long time ago -- if it ever happened at all.
That's no accident. You know that old adage about how "location, location, location" drives healthy retail operations? Walgreens takes that proverb very seriously and is willing to make large investments to get the right location. The company's slogan, included in Walgreens' official logo graphics, places it "at the corner of happy and healthy." Nope, that's neither an accident nor a terrible pun. The "on the corner" thinking is deeply ingrained into Walgreens' company culture, and it's a very tangible asset in its own right.
Armed with a ton of ultra-convenient corner locations, Walgreens pioneered the concept of drive-through pharmacies alongside a literal rebirth of the traditional corner store. That was decades ago, but nothing has changed. Walgreens would still spend an extra million dollars to get that sweet high-traffic corner location than skimp on location and lose foot traffic. In the latest earnings call, COO Alex Gourlay faced an analyst's question about customer-service quality -- and answered that "we've certainly got great corners." Yes, the corner thinking still matters.
So Walgreens boasts $14.3 billion of property, plant, and equipment assets, mostly in the form of 8,175 stores and the land they occupy. For arch-rival CVS Health (NYSE:CVS), that metric stops at $10.1 billion and 9,600 stores. In other words, your average Walgreens is worth 66% more than the average CVS store.
Sometimes you get exactly what you pay for. Walgreens is willing to pay a premium for high-quality store locations, and the market-beating stock market returns speak for themselves:
Controlling the best system in the fastest-growing region
Matt DiLallo (Williams Partners): Natural gas pipeline and processing giant Williams Partners owns several critical energy infrastructure assets. However, none is as important to the company or the country as Transco, which is the nation's largest and fastest-growing natural gas pipeline system. Transco extends nearly 1,800 miles, from New York City to Texas, delivering gas along the way through 10,200 miles of pipelines.
The system operates as a regulated monopoly, which means a competitor can't build another pipeline next to it, though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, regulates the tariffs Williams charges to ensure it earns a fair profit while not gouging customers. Because of that arrangement, Williams Partners has unparalleled expansion opportunities along the Transco corridor.
To put Transco's strategic location into perspective, there are 88 new natural gas-fired power plants under construction in the country, 54 of which are along the Transco corridor. That's on top of several major industrial projects such as new petrochemical plants and LNG export facilities. The future demand coming from these projects has enabled Williams Partners to secure $7 billion of expansion projects on Transco that should enter service by 2020. Given the regulated nature of these projects, Williams Partners has clear visibility on the future cash flow they should generate, with the company expecting that they'll fuel $1.5 billion of annualized EBITDA profits once in service.
For a company that expects to generate $4.35 billion of EBITDA this year, these projects alone should expand its earnings by more than 33% in the coming years. In addition, the company has several other expansion opportunities either under way or in development across the rest of its portfolio.
These growth projects position Williams Partners to increase its already generous 5.8% distribution by a 5% to 7% annual rate for the foreseeable future. It's growth that investors can bank on thanks to the company's improving financial metrics and the colossal business advantage it has from owning Transco.