We'd all like to invest like the legendary Warren Buffett, turning thousands into millions or more. Buffett analyzes companies by calculating return on invested capital in order to help determine whether a company has an economic moat -- the ability to earn returns on its money above that money's cost.

ROIC is perhaps the most important metric in value investing. By determining a company's ROIC, you can see how well it's using the cash you entrust to it and whether it's actually creating value for you. Simply, it divides a company's operating profit by how much investment it took to get that profit. The formula is

ROIC = Net operating profit after taxes / Invested capital

The nuances of the formula are explained in further detail here. This one-size-fits-all calculation cuts out many of the legal accounting tricks (such as excessive debt) that managers use to boost earnings numbers, and provides you with an apples-to-apples way to evaluate businesses, even across industries. The higher the ROIC, the more efficient the company uses capital.

Ultimately, we're looking for companies that can invest their money at rates that are higher than the cost of capital, which for most businesses is between 8% and 12%. Ideally, we want to see ROIC above 12%, at a minimum, and a history of increasing returns, or at least steady returns, which indicate some durability to the company's economic moat.

Let's take a look at Buffalo Wild Wings (Nasdaq: BWLD) and three of its industry peers, to see how efficiently they use cash. Here are the ROIC figures for each company over a few periods.

Company

TTM

1 year ago

3 years ago

5 years ago

Buffalo Wild Wings 18.8% 18.0% 20.7% 17.1%
Panera Bread (Nasdaq: PNRA) 24.2% 22.6% 11.6% 17.1%
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (Nasdaq: RRGB) 3.3%* 4.8% 8.3% 10.4%
California Pizza Kitchen (Nasdaq: CPKI) 6.3%** 8.0%** 8.0% 9.4%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.
*Because RRGB did not report an effective tax rate this year, we used its 29% effective tax rate from three years ago.
**Because CPKI did not report an effective tax rate this year, we used its 30% effective tax rate from three years ago.

Buffalo Wild Wings has slightly increased its returns on invested capital from five years ago, suggesting that it has strengthened its competitive position. Panera Bread has also seen increases in its returns over the same time period. The other two companies have seen declines in their returns from five years ago.

Businesses with consistently high ROIC show that they're efficiently using capital. They also have the ability to treat shareholders well, because they can then use their extra cash to pay out dividends to us, buy back shares, or further invest in their franchise. And healthy and growing dividends are something that Warren Buffett has long loved.

So for more successful investments, dig a little deeper than the earnings headlines to find the company's ROIC. If you'd like to add these companies to your watchlist or set up a new watchlist, just click here.

Jim Royal, Ph.D., owns shares of Red Robin. The Motley Fool owns shares of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Panera Bread and Buffalo Wild Wings. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a write covered strangle position in Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. 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.