The supply chain is an often-invisible aspect of the American economy. Goods are made all over the country, but they must get from one place to another. Less-than-truckload freight company Old Dominion Freight Line (ODFL -0.36%) plays a vital role in that process.

Trucking isn't the flashiest business, but the stock has been dynamic for long-term shareholders. Shares have returned 1,100% in price appreciation alone over the past decade.

Winning stocks like Old Dominion Freight don't often come cheap, which is why they should top your wishlist if a recession drags prices down across Wall Street. Here is what makes the stock such an excellent potential investment.

A backbone of the economy

Trucking is the most common method of transporting goods throughout the United States, accounting for roughly 72% of total tonnage annually. Old Dominion Freight is the nation's second-largest LTL carrier (less than truckload), specializing in transporting shipments up to 15,000 pounds (or less than a full trailer). These larger shipments mean that Old Dominion primarily ships from businesses to other businesses, not consumers.

The company owns 11,000 trucks transporting 45,000 trailers throughout a network of 255 service centers in 48 states. This sprawling logistics network is a competitive advantage that has enabled Old Dominion to gradually grow its market share from 2.9% to 11.4% since 2002.

Old Dominion considers itself a premium carrier, charging a little bit more than some competitors but backing it up with performance -- 99% of deliveries are on time, and damage claims are less than 0.5% of revenue. That's a big deal for a company whose business will be disrupted if the trucking company damages or loses the cargo.

Standing out with ruthless efficiency

So what makes Old Dominion the best freight company to own? Its ruthless efficiency powers earnings growth in a business that requires constant reinvestment. Old Dominion has the highest operating margin, return on invested capital, and free cash flow conversion rate of its publicly traded peers.

Additionally, these metrics have strengthened over time, meaning the company can spend less money and generate more profits. That's allowed the company to begin paying a dividend that it's raised for seven consecutive years, and carries a dividend payout ratio of just 14%.

ODFL Operating Margin (TTM) Chart

ODFL Operating Margin (TTM) data by YCharts

The company has steadily reduced its operating ratio from 85% to 70%, meaning it can cover all of its costs of doing business on 70% of its revenue. This could make Old Dominion better equipped for a recession, one of the benefits of its efficiency.

Could a recession derail the stock?

Old Dominion's formula to grow and win market share remains intact. However, the short-term could get bumpy. Analysts believe the company's earnings-per-share (EPS) will decline this year due to a softening economy. The company reported an 11.9% year-over-year decline in tonnage-per-day in the first quarter, highlighting this concern.

ODFL Normalized Diluted EPS (TTM) Chart

ODFL Normalized Diluted EPS (TTM) data by YCharts

Old Dominion's sensitivity to the broader economy likely means the stock will sell off as earnings erode in a recession. For long-term investors, that might be the perfect opportunity to buy shares. The company's low operating ratio comes with a healthy balance sheet with $130 million in net cash, so it's as well-suited as any cyclical stock to endure a downturn.

The company's potential to capture a bigger piece of a growing pie (trucking tonnage should grow with the economy over time) makes a quality operator such as Old Dominion a stock that should top your recession shopping list.