It takes a special company to increase its dividend for decades on end, but Aflac (AFL -0.07%), Medtronic (MDT 0.90%), and Hormel Foods (HRL 0.29%) have each done it. The yields here may not be huge, but the opportunities for income investors are big just the same. If you take the time to get to know Aflac's insurance niche, Medtronic's acquisition acumen, and Hormel's proven history to shift with customers over time, I'm confident you'll find at least one stock here that would fit well in your portfolio today.
The only Dividend Aristocrat I own
Brian Stoffel (Aflac): There's only one stock I own that qualifies as a Dividend Aristocrat -- and it happens to be the stock I've owned the longest, too. Aflac is probably most famous for its talking duck. The rest of the business -- which focuses on providing supplemental insurance primarily in the United States and Japan -- is pretty boring.
But that talking duck is worth a lot more than you might think. The brand awareness makes the company a natural choice whenever a family is looking for extra insurance to help cover medical or disability needs. It's much easier to find distribution partners with that kind of mind space. And the aging population of Japan makes supplemental insurance for things like cancer fairly popular.
For those unfamiliar with how such insurers work: Aflac takes the premiums its policyholders pay and invests them in relatively safe and boring places -- like international bonds. That "float" then produces income while the company pays out claims for its policyholders.
While the current dividend yield of 2.1% is modest, the payout has grown for 36 consecutive years. The compounding on that growth makes a huge difference in the long run. Case in point: My shares -- bought in 2009 -- are up 540%. But when you include the effect of dividends, that return jumps all the way to 730%.
While you might not get the same returns over the next decade, you'll get the same powerful addition that dividends provide to your absolute returns.
An innovative medical device play
George Budwell (Medtronic): If you're looking for an elite Dividend Aristocrat stock, Medtronic -- the world's largest medical device company in terms of annual sales -- should definitely be on your radar right now.
Even though the company has had some troubles with its diabetes and cardiovascular care units over the last year, Medtronic has still managed to post respectable levels of top- and bottom-line growth in recent quarters, thanks to the outstanding commercial performance of its minimally invasive therapies group, restorative therapies group, and growing presence in key emerging markets throughout Southeast Asia.
Best of all, Medtronic's free cash flow jumped from $746 million to a stellar $1.8 billion in the most recent quarter compared to the same period a year ago. The company, in turn, should have no problem keeping its four-decade-long streak of raising its dividend intact. Driving this point home, Medtronic has now raised its annual payout to shareholders every year since the second year of the Carter administration. That's an amazing track record for a healthcare-oriented dividend stock.
How has Medtronic stayed on top of its game? The company's secret sauce, if you will, has been its aggressive mergers-and-acquisitions strategy that's helped to bring in several new disruptive technologies. Late last year, for instance, the company gobbled up Mazor Robotics, giving it a top-notch robotic surgery platform. Wall Street, in kind, believes this novel robotic surgery platform will help boost the company's top line a healthy 4.8% in 2021.
In all, Medtronic is a proven commodity when it comes to generating outstanding returns on capital and providing shareholders with a solid source of passive income. That's a winning combination that should definitely appeal to long-term-oriented investors.
This too shall pass
Reuben Gregg Brewer (Hormel Foods): Although packaged food icon Hormel Foods only offers investors a 2.1% dividend yield, it has increased its disbursement annually for an incredible 53 consecutive years. That's a streak that few companies can match and shows an institutional dedication to returning value to investors. On top of that, management tends to take a conservative financial approach, with long-term debt making up less than 5% of the capital structure at the end of the 2019 fiscal second quarter.
That said, Hormel is facing some headwinds today along with its peers. Customer tastes are shifting toward food considered fresh and healthy, not the historical strong suit of packaged-food makers. However, with a large meat business, Hormel is actually fairly well positioned. And it has been shifting its business around to better serve customers, buying brands like Wholly Guacamole that resonate more with consumers today. With a rock-solid balance sheet, Hormel has plenty of time and ample resources to adjust its business as end-market tastes shift.
But here's the thing that makes Dividend Aristocrat Hormel so attractive today: That 2.1% yield, while not huge, happens to be toward the high end of the company's historical range. Hormel has consistently provided double-digit dividend growth backed by a financially strong company (the payout ratio is a reasonable 40%, by the way). It also has a long history of adjusting along with customers, noting that you don't get to five decades of dividend hikes by being an industry also-ran. All things considered, it looks like dividend investors would be well served by a deep dive here even if 2.1% is a bit below your normal yield target.