When we think of dividend stocks, we tend to think of large, stable companies such as Automatic Data Processing (NYSE:ADP) and McDonald's (NYSE:MCD). These blue chips are in the news every day, and they've powered portfolios for decades.

But Automatic Data Processing and McDonald's 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 $13 billion energy firm Kinder Morgan Partners -- and it's No. 13. The No. 1 dividend payer is a $2.2 billion 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


Healthcare Realty Trust (NYSE:HR)


Great Northern Iron Ore Properties (NYSE:GNI)




Eaton Vance


Data provided by Capital IQ. Performance from April 25, 1997, to April 25, 2007, and assumes dividend reinvestment.

Another company, A/S Steamship Company TORM, has returned 2,024%, 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 -- Eaton Vance and Corporate Office Properties Trust -- currently have a market cap of more than $2 billion.

As you may have already guessed, that means all of these companies were small caps (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 are either tied to real estate, resources, or energy -- three 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 or Healthcare Realty Trust if REITs lost some luster, and Ryland could get interesting if housing continues to struggle (though I like a few other homebuilders a bit more). All three companies still have market caps in the $2 billion range and have 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. The Fool has a disclosure policy.