Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures that show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.

For many investors, the most interesting thing about Sysco (NYSE: SYY) is that its name is a homonym with a higher-profile technology company. Food-service may not have the panache that Internet networking equipment has, but it's a key industry -- and one that has brought Sysco a lot of success over the years. Can Sysco keep up the pace as an economic recovery finally starts to take hold? Below, we'll revisit how Sysco does on our 10-point scale.

The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.

Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.

When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:

  • Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
  • Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
  • Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
  • Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Sysco.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?

Size Market cap > $10 billion $17.1 billion Pass
Consistency Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years 4 years Pass
  Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years 2 years Fail
Stock stability Beta < 0.9 0.71 Pass
  Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20% (23.5%) Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 18 15.15 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 3.7% Pass
  5-year dividend growth > 10% 8.4% Fail
  Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years 42 years Pass
  Payout ratio < 75% 53.2% Pass
  Total score   7 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at Sysco last year, the company has dropped a point, as its dividend growth rate fell below the 10% level.

Sysco stands atop its industry. As a provider to the food-service industry, the company tries to serve all the needs of restaurants and its other clientele.

But Sysco has had to deal with some headwinds. The food business has notoriously thin margins, challenging even the biggest players. In the grocery space, Safeway (NYSE: SWY) and SUPERVALU (NYSE: SVU) both have operating margins of less than 3%, as they have to walk the fine line between pricing pressure from suppliers and weakness among their customers. While Sysco doesn't serve consumers directly, it faces the same margin challenges.

Moreover, Sysco's operating income fell by 2% in its most recent quarter as higher costs for meat as well as canned and frozen products squeezed the bottom line. That's similar to what we've seen from food giant Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT) as well as fast-food king McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), as higher net costs have forced the companies to raise prices in order to defend their profit margins. In addition, the slow economy has hurt restaurant traffic, further pressuring Sysco's profits.

Sysco's size, however, gives it an advantage over its competitors. It takes a lot of capital to build the distribution network that Sysco has, and the savings it produces gives Sysco leverage over its suppliers to try to get the best deals.

For retirees and other conservative investors, Sysco's four-decade record of raising dividends is a compelling reason to own the stock. Sysco will never become a huge growth driver, but its slow and steady progress makes it a good low-volatility choice for many retirement portfolios.

Keep searching
Finding exactly the right stock to retire with is a tough task, but it's not impossible. Searching for the best candidates will help improve your investing skills, and teach you how to separate the right stocks from the risky ones.

If you really want to retire rich, no one stock will get the job done. Instead, you need to know how to prepare for your golden years. The Motley Fool's latest special report will give you all the details you need to get a smart investing plan going, plus it reveals three smart stocks for a rich retirement. But don't waste another minute -- click here and read it today.

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