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. That said, 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 Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI) and a few of its sector and industry peers:

Company

Return on Equity

Net Margin

Asset Turnover

Leverage Ratio

Whole Foods Market

12.1%

3.0%

2.34

1.73

Kroger (NYSE: KR)

22.2%

1.4%

3.53

4.56

SUPERVALU (NYSE: SVU)

(71.4%)

(4.0%)

2.49

7.14

Safeway (NYSE: SWY)

11.9%

1.4%

2.73

3.03

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

Whole Foods also has a decent ROE, which is achieved by focusing on margins that are double those of key rivals. A greater focus on leverage could boost its return on equity. Kroger has a high ROE, which is achieved by a high asset turnover and a high leverage ratio, balanced by the industry's notoriously thin margins. SUPERVALU has a massively negative ROE, achieved through negative margins and a heavily leveraged balance sheet. While Safeway achieves similar margins to Kroger, it's less focused on asset turnover, and its less leveraged balance sheet diminishes its ROE.

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. If you'd like to add these companies to your watchlist, or set up a new one, just click here .

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Jim Royal, Ph.D., does not own shares in any company mentioned. Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on SUPERVALU. The Fool owns shares of SUPERVALU. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.