Quick test: Which of the following is false?

  • The average American's lifespan is nearly 80 years.
  • The average large American corporation's lifespan is between 20 and 50 years, depending on the source.
  • Dinosaurs still exist and can be seen roaming throughout Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Rhode Island.

You didn't hear about the T-Rex in Pawtucket?
Oh OK, we'll fess up: Dinosaurs remain extinct. Which means that an average American outlives an average large-sized American corporation by a factor of 2 or more.

Two years ago, we wrote a column advocating that investors look for companies with the following four characteristics:

  • Built to last for 100 years or more.
  • Little-known, yet dominating their growing industries.
  • Steered by committed management teams.
  • Governed by the highest corporate values.

Little did we realize just how preposterous it is that companies would be built for "100 years or more"! In fact, according to Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, "a full one-third of the companies listed in the 1970 Fortune 500 … had vanished by 1983 -- acquired, merged, or broken to pieces."

Professor Jeremy Siegel's meticulously researched book The Future for Investors studied the original firms of the S&P 500, which was put together in 1957. Of those 500 firms, Siegel found, just 25% survived intact to 2003! Over that 46-year span, the other 75% (fully 375 companies) went bankrupt, merged, or were taken private.

That's our advice: Invest in unicorns and sasquatches
This doesn't invalidate our earlier advice -- that you should look to invest in businesses built to last for 100 years or more. If you can do that, after all, you'll align yourself with managers who are thinking long term rather than short term.

It does, however, make an elite group of U.S. businesses stand out even more -- for one shared trait that is almost as unbelievable as unicorns and sasquatches. Before we get to that trait, let's look at that List of Five:

  • Target (NYSE:TGT). Has been paying dividends every quarter since it went public in 1967.
  • Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT). Wal-Mart has been raising its quarterly cash dividends since it began paying a dividend in 1974, not long after it went public.
  • Sysco (NYSE:SYY). Has raised dividends every year since going public 40 years ago.
  • Emerson Electric (NYSE:EMR). Has increased its dividend every year for 53 years.
  • General Mills (NYSE:GIS). The cereal king or its predecessor company has paid uninterrupted dividends for 111 years!

These five businesses have shown remarkable track records. What's most impressive: Each has been paying a dividend more than 35 years.

We've written a lot about global stocks lately, but if you're a gun-shy investor looking for stocks on which to build your retirement foundation, divided stocks are a vital arrow in your quiver.

Here's why
The benefit of dividends to shareholders is clear: You get paid cash each and every year regardless of whether the underlying stock is up, down, or indifferent. Furthermore, you can pocket that cash or use it to buy more shares of stock. Dividends, however, also have a benefit to the companies that pay them, and we think it's no coincidence that these long-lasting companies are all dividend-payers.

That's because dividends -- and the need to be consistent in paying them once a company starts paying them -- force companies to be responsible with their cash. In fact, a recent paper by Douglas Skinner and Eugene Soltes of the University of Chicago found that dividend-paying companies have better earnings quality than their non-dividend-paying peers, and that "dividend-payers are less likely to report losses" [emphasis added]. And because companies only go out of business when they start losing money, it's clear that companies that don't lose money won't go out of business.

So there's one little secret when you're seeking companies that are being built to last 100 years: Look for stocks that pay dividends.

It's not all joy in Dividend-ville
Of course, there are no sure things, and that's just as true with longtime dividend payers as it is in, say, horse racing. Even worse, the economic downturn that started last year forced a number of former "dividend dynasties" to cut or even do away with their dividend -- State Street (NYSE:STT) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) are two high-profile examples. Thus, it's as critical now as ever to carefully scrutinize any stock you choose to invest in and diversify your portfolio broadly across a collection of superior companies.

If you're interested in doing just that, click here to join our Motley Fool Income Investor service free for 30 days. The dividend-fiends there have six "Buy First" dividend stocks worth your consideration.

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This article was originally published March 27, 2009. It has been updated.

Neither Brian Richards nor Tim Hanson owns shares of any companies mentioned. Sysco and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Sysco is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool owns shares of Sysco. The Fool's disclosure policy loves Dubuque, Iowa.