The wealth-building power of compound interest will never cease to amaze me. It's a story of patience and attention to detail, where small, short-term differences add up to massive divergence over decades. And in the end, the biggest winners don't always deliver the fattest share-price returns.

Let's take a closer look at the dividend-paying habits of diversified energy giant Chevron (NYSE:CVX). The stock has crushed fellow energy titan ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and the wider Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) over the last decade. This is true whether or not you assume dividends were reinvested into buying more stock along the way, but the payouts sure boost your total returns by a welcome margin.

CVX Chart

CVX data by YCharts.

It's hard to complain about a 275% 10-year return, which works out to an annual gain of 13.9%. The Dow's rise over the same period was a far smaller 83% jump, or 6.2% annualized.

But throw in the reinvested-dividends effect, and Chevron's return swells to a mighty 413% -- a 17.8% compound average growth rate. The Dow's average return under the same circumstances only rose to 8.8% per year.

Viewed through another lens, Chevron's payouts boosted its total returns by 50%, while the average Dow stock's payouts only added 33%. Exxon actually lags its blue-chip peers in this department, because its dividends only juiced total returns by 25%.

The secret to Chevron's shareholder-friendly success? Relentless payout increases. Share prices have been rising sky-high, but management kept pace with equally fantastic dividend boosts. The result: surprisingly steady dividend yields through thick and thin.

CVX Dividend Chart

CVX Dividend data by YCharts.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.