As investors, we need to understand how our companies truly make their money. A neat trick developed for just that purpose -- the DuPont Formula -- can help us do so.

The DuPont Formula can give you a better grasp on exactly where your company is producing its profit, and where it might have a competitive advantage. Named after the company where it was pioneered, the formula breaks down return on equity into three components:

Return on equity = net margin X asset turnover X leverage ratio

What makes each of these components important?

  • High net margins show that a company can get customers to pay more for its products. Luxury-goods companies provide a great example here.
  • High asset turnover indicates that a company needs to invest less of its capital, since it uses its assets more efficiently to generate sales. Service industries, for instance, often lack big capital investments.
  • Finally, the leverage ratio shows how much the company is relying on liabilities to create its profits.

Generally, the higher these numbers, the better. But too much debt can sink a company, so beware of companies with very high leverage ratios.

Let's see what the DuPont Formula can tell us about United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS) and a few of its sector and industry peers.

Company

Return on Equity

Net Margin

Asset Turnover

Leverage Ratio

United Parcel Service

44.3%

7.0%

1.51

4.16

FedEx (NYSE: FDX)

9.0%

3.4%

1.49

1.75

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP)

16.5%

16.6%

0.41

2.45

CH Robinson Worldwide (Nasdaq: CHRW)

33.9%

4.2%

4.84

1.68

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Big Brown appears to do a lot for its shareholders, with that 44.3% ROE. UPS turns high leverage to good use, while rival FedEx achieves just one-fourth the ROE, a combination of half the margin and half the leverage of UPS. Union Pacific achieves a respectable return on equity through a focus on margin and a reasonable amount of leverage, while CH Robinson's impressive ROE is due largely to its strikingly high asset turnover rather than margin or leverage.

Using the DuPont formula can often give you some insight into how a company is competing against peers and what type of strategy it's using to juice return on equity. To find more successful investments, dig deeper than the earnings headlines. And if you'd like to, add these companies to your watchlist.

We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Jim Royal, Ph.D., owns no shares of any company mentioned. FedEx is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. The Fool owns shares of FedEx and UPS. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.