When we think of dividend stocks, we tend to think of large, stable companies such as General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Pfizer (NYSE:PFE). These blue chips are in the news every day, and they've powered portfolios for decades.

But General Electric and Pfizer aren't among the top five or 10 best dividend payers of the past decade (as measured by total return). In fact, the largest company in the top 20 is $20.9 billion mining firm Southern Copper -- and it's No. 20. The No. 1 dividend payer is a $2.1 billion office real estate investment trust (REIT) -- Corporate Office Properties Trust.

Five surprising returns
To make this list, the companies all had to be paying dividends in 1997 and 2007, and they had to have a current yield greater than 1%. Without further ado, here are the top five.


Total Return

Corporate Office Properties Trust




Eaton Vance (NYSE:EV)


Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (NYSE:KMP)


BP Prudhoe Bay Royalty Trust (NYSE:BPT)


Data provided by Capital IQ. Performance from March 26, 1997 to March 26, 2007, assumes dividend reinvestment.

Another company, A/S Steamship Company TORM, has returned 1,756%, but it's only been trading on the Nasdaq for about five years, so it didn't make the cut. Still, the returns for this Danish tanker producer have been impressive.

Of the companies that cracked the top five, only two -- Kinder Morgan Energy Partners and Corporate Office Properties Trust -- currently have a market cap of more than $2 billion. Given the debt both firms employ, these two actually clock in with enterprise values of more than $3 billion for Corporate Office Properties and $18 billion for Kinder Morgan Energy Partners.

As you may have already guessed, that means that all of these companies were small caps (meaning they had a market cap of less than $1 billion) a decade ago. But the dividends they paid didn't hamper their growth, and they rewarded investors with payouts even when the market was volatile.

Are any of these companies worth an investment now? Except for Eaton Vance, all the top performers in the list are either tied to real estate or energy, two areas of the market that have been booming more than most for the past five years. That said, I'd be interested in Corporate Office Properties if REITs lost some luster, and Ryland could get interesting if housing continues to struggle, though I must admit I like a few other homebuilders a bit more. Both companies still have market caps in the $2 billion range and plenty of room to expand.

The dividend wrap-up
It's not a complete surprise that the best returns among dividend payers would come from smaller companies. In fact, it's precisely what I expected, since it's easier for smaller businesses to achieve high growth rates for periods of five to 10 years.

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This article was originally published on Aug. 11, 2006. It has been updated.

At the time of publication, Nathan Parmelee had no financial interest in any of the companies mentioned. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.