Income investors are probably familiar with tobacco giant Altria Group (NYSE:MO), but if you aren't, you need to put it on your radar if you're serious about dividends. That's because Altria is one of the most highly regarded dividend stocks of all time. It has a tremendous record of paying dividends, and even raising its payout on an annual basis.
To be sure, there are concerns over Altria's business and future prospects. Smoking is on the decline in the United States because of increasingly harsh public and regulatory scrutiny, and Altria hasn't had an interest in international markets since its spin-off of Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM).
But rest assured, Altria has a plan. Through price increases, cost savings, and revenue growth through new product categories, Altria will generate more than enough profits to keep paying its hefty dividend for many years to come.
Altria is EXTREMELY shareholder friendly
Altria holds a nearly unbeatable history of dividend payments. The company recently raised its dividend by 8%, marking the 48th dividend increase in the past 45 years. This is an incredible track record, but some might question whether this streak can continue given all the fears surrounding tobacco. Altria is well aware of the situation and expects a 4.5% volume decline this year.
But first, it's worth noting that Altria is producing meaningful growth in its other businesses outside traditional cigarettes. It has a leadership position in cigars, through the John Middleton brand. Over the first half of the year, operating profit in its smokeables category is up 4.9% year over year. And, when it comes to cigarettes, Altria is still increasing profitability. The big reason is Altria's amazing pricing power. Its Marlboro brand commands 43.8% market share in its category, which allows the company to pass along regular price increases. In fact, segment pricing for Altria's smokeables products rose 4.9% during the first six months of 2014.
In addition, Altria has a strong smokeless business, highlighted by the Copenhagen and Skoal brands. These two brands together hold 51% of retail market share. Altria's smokeless business posted 6.5% operating profit growth through the first half of the year.
Altria also has a profitable wine business through the Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brand. This business produced $50 million in operating income over the first half of the year, up 11% versus the same period one year ago.
Collectively, it's clear these actions are working. Adjusted earnings per share are up 5%, year over year, through the first half of the year. For the full year, the company expects at least 7% growth in adjusted EPS.
Last but not least, let's not forget about the clear growth category in the industry. That is e-cigarettes, and Altria has made some major investments to once again capture significant market share. Going forward, Altria will be right there to profit if e-cigarettes prove to be a major growth opportunity.
Altria recently took its MarkTen electronic cigarette product nationally and believes its "four-draw" technology separates it from the competition. Altria's focus in this category is to provide products that heat and don't burn, which management believes is the key to a successful brand penetration. Given its track record, investors should feel confident that Altria knows what it's doing. In addition, Altria acquired Green Smoke's e-vapor business for $110 million, to further its standing in the business.
Bottom line: Altria is a premier dividend stock
Altria's long-term financial goals call for 7%-9% growth in adjusted earnings per share, and to maintain a target dividend payout ratio of 80% of these earnings. Altria's very transparent dividend policy is valuable and removes a lot of the guess work to whether Altria will raise its dividend, and by how much. Altria clearly laid out its strategic initiatives, which call for penetration into new product categories, pricing increases, and annual cost cuts. Combined, these strategies should provide enough growth for Altria to keep paying its current 4.7% dividend yield, and continue to increase dividends by the mid to high single digits on a percentage basis, for many years.
Bob Ciura owns shares of Altria Group. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.