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Want to retire early? Why dividend shares like Unilever could offer robust income and capital growth

Investors seeking to boost the value of their retirement nest egg usually include dividend shares in their portfolio. The good news is that the best dividend-paying companies also often have the most robust share price growth prospects. 

Today I’m going to at Unilever (LSE: ULVR), the fast-moving consumer goods giant.

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Power of brands

There is a lot to like about Unilever, which operates in three segments: personal care, homecare, and foods and refreshment.  

On a given day, the average British (and global) household is likely to use many of its brands, including PG Tips, MarmiteWall’sBen & Jerry’sCifDovePersil, Axe/LynxRexona and Vaseline.

Thanks to its wide range, Unilever shareholders don’t have to worry too much about a potential economic slowdown, because consumers are likely to continue to buy household items, cleaning products, and other essentials.

This defensive stock is also preferred by investors as a reliable dividend payer. 

Dividend payout ratio

The dividend payout ratio can show investors if a stock is paying out either less or more than the company earns. In other words, if a company earns £1 per share but pays a dividend of £1.40, management may have to cut the dividend at some point in the near future.

A payout ratio of over 100% means that a company is paying out more in dividends than it earns. Unilever’s payout ratio stands around a healthy 44%. 

Cash flow and rising dividends

A company with cash resources usually has the ability to increase the dividend payout or make share repurchases, another way of boosting investor returns. Cash also gives management options in terms of reinvesting in initiatives that may enhance the company’s growth and profitability.

Over the last 12 months, Unilever generated over £5.5bn in free cash flow and this increasing cash stream is likely to encourage the group to raise dividends in the coming years. 

And there is plenty of evidence for that view. On average, its dividend has gone up by about 7% annually since 1979. Due to the strength of its brands, Unilever can put a premium price on most items sold, which translates into profits for the company and growing dividends for shareholders.

In April, its trading statement for Q1 also saw it announcing a dividend up by 6% to €0.4104 per share. The next ex-dividend date is 8 August.

Growth prospects

Earnings growth has been the major fuel driving Unilever’s dividend growth. According to the annual report, its “long-term compounding growth model, based on continuously high levels of re-investment” is behind the group’s success. 

In 2018, adjusted sales growth was 3.1%, and that translated to an adjusted earnings increase of 12.8%. Analysts also highlight Unilever’s improved margins, helped by cost-cutting across the company.

As a global company, ULVR derives over 50% of its revenue from emerging markets (EMs), which are driven increasingly by higher sales of consumer-staple brands. In Q1, its EM sales went up by 5%. A growing middle class in these markets is likely to help the group increase its dividends in future years too.

Unilever’s return on capital employed (ROCE), a profitability ratio measuring how efficiently a company can generate profits, has also been around a highly-regarded 21%.

This has all led to steady share price growth too and this, combined with its historical track record of generating juicy returns on invested capital, certainly puts it on my radar.

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tezcang has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Unilever. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.