What C.H. Robinson Worldwide Does With Its Cash

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In the quest to find great investments, most investors focus on earnings to gauge a company's financial strength. This is a good start, but earnings can be misleading and incomplete. To get a clearer understanding of a company's ability to earn money and reward you, the shareholder, it's often better to focus on cash flow. In this series, we tear apart a company's cash flow statement to see how much money is truly being earned, and more importantly, what management is doing with that cash.

Step on up, C.H. Robinson Worldwide (NAS: CHRW) .

The first step in analyzing cash flow is to look at net income. C.H. Robinson's net income over the last five years has been impressive:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income$432 million$390 million$367 million$361 million$327 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

Next, we add back in a few non-cash expenses like the depreciation of assets, and adjust net income for changes in inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable -- changes in cash levels that reflect a company either paying its bills, or being paid by customers. This yields a figure called cash from operating activities -- the amount of cash a company generates from doing everyday business.

From there, we subtract capital expenditures, or the amount a company spends acquiring or fixing physical assets. This yields one version of a figure called free cash flow, or the true amount of cash a company has left over for its investors after doing business:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow$480 million$327 million$342 million$425 million$265 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

Now we know how much cash C.H. Robinson is really pulling in each year. Next question: What is it doing with that cash?

There are two ways a company can use free cash flow to directly reward shareholders: dividends and share repurchases. Cash not returned to shareholders can either be stashed in the bank, used to invest in other companies, or to pay off debt.

Here's how much C.H. Robinson has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends$189 million$169 million$163 million$151 million$125 million
Share Repurchases$203 million$151 million$267 million$201 million$167 million
Total Returned to Shareholders$392 million$320 million$430 million$352 million$292 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

As you can see, the company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. That's caused shares outstanding to fall:

 

2011*

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (millions)165165168169170

Source: S&P Capital IQ. *12 months ended Sept. 30.

Now, companies tend to be fairly poor at repurchasing their own shares, buying feverishly when shares are expensive and backing away when they're cheap. Does C.H. Robinson fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

This is encouraging. For the most part, C.H. Robinson management has been fairly consistent with share buybacks regardless of share price. Very few companies can say the same these days. Given what looks like reasonable valuations in relation to earnings and cash flow, C.H. Robinson's share buybacks have likely been a good deal for shareholders in recent years.

Finally, I like to look at how dividends have added to total shareholder returns:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Over the last five years, C.H. Robinson shares returned 32%, which drops to 21% without dividends -- not a bad boost to top off already decent returns.

To gauge how well a company is doing, keep an eye on the cash. How much a company earns is not as important as how much cash is actually coming in the door, and how much cash is coming in the door isn't as important as what management actually does with that cash. Remember, you, the shareholder, own the company. Are you happy with the way management has used C.H. Robinson's cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

At the time this article was published

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