Had Jerry Maguire been an investor instead of a fictional sports agent, he might have become famous for yelling, "Show me the cash flow!"

Earnings come and go, and the green-eyeshade types can legally manipulate it to mask a company's true operations. Yet its ability to generate cash -- what comes in the register and goes out the door -- remains the preeminent indicator of company's worth. In short, cash is king.

Below, we'll look at companies that have proven themselves prodigious generators of free cash flow (FCF) -- the amount of money a company has left over that it could potentially pay to its investors. We'll find companies that have generated compounded free cash flow growth rates exceeding 25% annually over the past five years, then pair them with the opinions of the more than 150,000 members of the Motley Fool CAPS investor intelligence community, to see which ones might have the best chance of outperforming the market.


Levered FCF 5-Yr CAGR, %

CAPS Rating  (out of 5)

American Science & Engineering (Nasdaq: ASEI )



Cracker Barrel (Nasdaq: CBRL)



Joy Global (Nasdaq: JOYG) 



Lions Gate Entertainment (NYSE: LGF)



SanDisk (Nasdaq: SNDK)



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; Motley Fool CAPS.
CAGR=compounded annual growth rate.

Generating copious amounts of cash doesn't make a company an automatic buy. But having looked at Enron's cash flows instead of its earnings would have saved many investors a lot of grief. Warren Buffett understands that the value of a company today is calculated by its discounted future cash flows, so use this list as a jumping-off point to dig deeper into the piles of cash.

This would make for a great movie. Lions Gate Entertainment, the studio behind the entertaining but increasingly derivative Saw horror movie franchise is interested in buying either the MGM studio or the film library of Miramax, the Disney (NYSE: DIS) subsidiary.

The antagonist in this plot line is corporate raider (or activist, depending on how he's cast) Carl Icahn, who owns a 19% chunk of Lions Gate stock. He's willing to increase his holdings to as much as 22%, but only on the condition that the studio doesn't make any purchases of more than $100 million, effectively putting the kibosh on the acquisitions Lions Gate wants to make.

The plot twist here is that if anyone acquires such a large stake in Lions Gate, the studio's debt holders have the right to accelerate the maturity on their loans thereby increasing the risk of default. How will this cliffhanger turn out?

Although the movie studio's stock has been languishing of late, investors remain confident about its ability to rebound. More than 87% of CAPS members rating Lions Gate have marked it to outperform the broader averages. Last November melj44 felt the market was valuing the company as if all it had to its credit was the Saw franchise.

Misunderstood, underappreciated diversified media company. Growing rapidly, succeeding across multiple venues, and yet still trading priced as though its success were at all dependent on the success/failure of the Saw franchise. Major turnaround in cost control in recent quarters, while maintaining high level of investment in expansion & growth. About to break out with a vengeance. Also, possible acquisition target.

Down home goodness
Maybe it's the country fried steak, but Cracker Barrel -- the restaurant famous for its down-home style cooking -- managed to beat analyst estimates yet again, recording its sixth straight quarter of topping expectations.

Casual dining chains like Brinker International (NYSE: EAT), which operates Chili's and On the Border, have been pinched by the recession and suffered from declining revenues as diners cook more meals at home. But Cracker Barrel has been toughing it out and reported that although same-store sales were flattish in the last quarter, profits rose because of higher average checks due to a combination of lower food expenses and price increases.

Highly rated CAPS All-Star Momentum21 had fond memories of eating at the restaurant and believed it had the potential to be a gem hiding in plain sight. However, in a follow-up comment on his own pitch for the restaurant he notes that sometimes the gauzy past can obscure objectiveness.

Based on this dialogue I ate at Cracker Barrel this morning on a business trip to Florida. It has been many years since my first visit as a child. I liked the experience but it is certainly not the environment that makes you think of a bright and creative growth future :) It is what it is though and maybe that's the point...but I fear that my money might get trapped in the same time warp backwards

There's a menu of ideas on the Cracker Barrel CAPS page, so why not feast on the smorgasbord of opinion there and give us a tip on how you feel.

Follow the money
While these stocks have left a trail of dollars, it pays to start your own research on Motley Fool CAPS. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments your fellow investors have made all from a stock's CAPS page. Why not head over to the completely free CAPS service and let us hear what you've got to say about these or any other stocks that you think will continue to be rolling in the dough.

Walt Disney is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick and is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. American Science & Engineering is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the other stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.