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With A Return On Equity Of 11%, Has UniFirst Corporation's (NYSE:UNF) Management Done Well?

Simply Wall St

While some investors are already well versed in financial metrics (hat tip), this article is for those who would like to learn about Return On Equity (ROE) and why it is important. To keep the lesson grounded in practicality, we'll use ROE to better understand UniFirst Corporation (NYSE:UNF).

Our data shows UniFirst has a return on equity of 11% for the last year. That means that for every $1 worth of shareholders' equity, it generated $0.11 in profit.

View our latest analysis for UniFirst

How Do You Calculate Return On Equity?

The formula for ROE is:

Return on Equity = Net Profit ÷ Shareholders' Equity

Or for UniFirst:

11% = US$179m ÷ US$1.6b (Based on the trailing twelve months to August 2019.)

Most readers would understand what net profit is, but it’s worth explaining the concept of shareholders’ equity. It is the capital paid in by shareholders, plus any retained earnings. Shareholders' equity can be calculated by subtracting the total liabilities of the company from the total assets of the company.

What Does Return On Equity Signify?

ROE looks at the amount a company earns relative to the money it has kept within the business. The 'return' is the profit over the last twelve months. The higher the ROE, the more profit the company is making. So, as a general rule, a high ROE is a good thing. That means it can be interesting to compare the ROE of different companies.

Does UniFirst Have A Good Return On Equity?

One simple way to determine if a company has a good return on equity is to compare it to the average for its industry. The limitation of this approach is that some companies are quite different from others, even within the same industry classification. You can see in the graphic below that UniFirst has an ROE that is fairly close to the average for the Commercial Services industry (13%).

NYSE:UNF Past Revenue and Net Income, November 22nd 2019

That's neither particularly good, nor bad. ROE can give us a view about company quality, but many investors also look to other factors, such as whether there are insiders buying shares. For those who like to find winning investments this free list of growing companies with recent insider purchasing, could be just the ticket.

Why You Should Consider Debt When Looking At ROE

Virtually all companies need money to invest in the business, to grow profits. That cash can come from retained earnings, issuing new shares (equity), or debt. In the first two cases, the ROE will capture this use of capital to grow. In the latter case, the use of debt will improve the returns, but will not change the equity. In this manner the use of debt will boost ROE, even though the core economics of the business stay the same.

Combining UniFirst's Debt And Its 11% Return On Equity

Shareholders will be pleased to learn that UniFirst has not one iota of net debt! Its ROE already suggests it is a good business, but the fact it has achieved this -- and doesn't borrowings -- makes it worthy of further consideration, in my view. At the end of the day, when a company has zero debt, it is in a better position to take future growth opportunities.

But It's Just One Metric

Return on equity is a useful indicator of the ability of a business to generate profits and return them to shareholders. In my book the highest quality companies have high return on equity, despite low debt. If two companies have the same ROE, then I would generally prefer the one with less debt.

But when a business is high quality, the market often bids it up to a price that reflects this. The rate at which profits are likely to grow, relative to the expectations of profit growth reflected in the current price, must be considered, too. So I think it may be worth checking this free report on analyst forecasts for the company.

If you would prefer check out another company -- one with potentially superior financials -- then do not miss thisfree list of interesting companies, that have HIGH return on equity and low debt.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Thank you for reading.