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 them 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 pre-eminent 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 160,000 members of the Motley Fool CAPS investor-intelligence community to see which ones might have the best chance of outperforming the market.

Company

Levered FCF, 5-Year CAGR

CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

AZZ (NYSE: AZZ)

101.0%

*****

Chart Industries (Nasdaq: GTLS)

27.0%

*****

Crosstex Energy (Nasdaq: XTEX)

240.4%

**

K-Tron International (Nasdaq: KTII)

38.4%

*****

Steak n Shake (NYSE: SNS)

125.9%

**

Sources: 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.

A sizzling opportunity?
After he was able to convert Western Sizzlin' from a money-losing casual-restaurant chain into a successful one, some smart Fools figured there was a good chance Sardar Biglari could transform an ugly stock into an investment beauty when he took on Steak n Shake. But can Biglari capture lightning in a bottle again and transform the restaurant operator into another Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) by buying an insurance company?

Although 81% of the 400 CAPS members rating the restaurateur have marked it to outperform the broader averages, it gets only a two-star rating, suggesting it's more likely Biglari will get struck by lightning than capture it.

CAPS member TMFeatnbybears likens Steak n Shake to a novelty stock in marking it down, while Jdben518 thinks it has a long way to fall before it becomes a buy again:

this stock is way over priced when it drops below $100 then i say buy but right now its on way to fast a climb. Its a restaurant stock that has no rational in its price.

Head over to the Steak n Shake CAPS page and feast on the diverse opinions.

Crossing the lines
Crosstex Energy has confounded those who thought the independent energy limited partnership was an ugly duckling. Earlier this year, mrindependent was one of a number of highly rated CAPS All-Stars figuring Crosstex would buckle under the weight of its debt load, even after selling assets to pay down some of the balance:

I agree that Crosstex Energy has too much debt. The stock price soared in recent months after the company announced a significant asset sale ... Even after the asset sale, the company has approximately $1060 million of remaining debt and its sustainable debt level is only $200 million or so. Since the company consistently generates negative cash flow, I do not believe that Crosstex will survive.

The recent earnings report, however, showed the company posting a $55 million profit, or $1.07 per share, while analysts had expected a $0.21-per-share loss. Admittedly, the quarter included a one-time gain of $86 million on those asset sales, gains which analyst forecasts typically exclude.

Charting its future
Just as the better prospects for natural gas bolstered Crosstex, they also boosted fourth-quarter results of engineered equipment maker Chart Industries. Strong demand in liquefied natural gas orders for vehicle fueling applications, not to mention increased demand in China, helped its distribution and storage segment post 46% of company revenue.

You would think that kind of news would bode well for the likes of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK), but analysts have downgraded the natural gas leader in recent days, as they find few company-specific levers for growth.

With 98% of the nearly 350 CAPS members who've rated Chart Industries expecting it to outperform the market, it looks like investors feel Chart will continue to engineer growth.

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. 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.

Berkshire Hathaway and Chesapeake Energy are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of AZZ, Berkshire Hathaway, Chesapeake Energy, and K-Tron International. 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 stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.