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Has UniFirst Corporation (NYSE:UNF) Been Employing Capital Shrewdly?

Simply Wall St

Today we'll evaluate UniFirst Corporation (NYSE:UNF) to determine whether it could have potential as an investment idea. In particular, we'll consider its Return On Capital Employed (ROCE), as that can give us insight into how profitably the company is able to employ capital in its business.

Firstly, we'll go over how we calculate ROCE. Then we'll compare its ROCE to similar companies. Then we'll determine how its current liabilities are affecting its ROCE.

Understanding Return On Capital Employed (ROCE)

ROCE measures the amount of pre-tax profits a company can generate from the capital employed in its business. All else being equal, a better business will have a higher ROCE. In brief, it is a useful tool, but it is not without drawbacks. Author Edwin Whiting says to be careful when comparing the ROCE of different businesses, since 'No two businesses are exactly alike.'

So, How Do We Calculate ROCE?

The formula for calculating the return on capital employed is:

Return on Capital Employed = Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT) ÷ (Total Assets - Current Liabilities)

Or for UniFirst:

0.10 = US$185m ÷ (US$2.0b - US$180m) (Based on the trailing twelve months to February 2019.)

So, UniFirst has an ROCE of 10%.

View our latest analysis for UniFirst

Does UniFirst Have A Good ROCE?

ROCE can be useful when making comparisons, such as between similar companies. We can see UniFirst's ROCE is around the 10% average reported by the Commercial Services industry. Separate from how UniFirst stacks up against its industry, its ROCE in absolute terms is mediocre; relative to the returns on government bonds. Investors may wish to consider higher-performing investments.

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

It is important to remember that ROCE shows past performance, and is not necessarily predictive. ROCE can be deceptive for cyclical businesses, as returns can look incredible in boom times, and terribly low in downturns. This is because ROCE only looks at one year, instead of considering returns across a whole cycle. What happens in the future is pretty important for investors, so we have prepared a free report on analyst forecasts for UniFirst.

UniFirst's Current Liabilities And Their Impact On Its ROCE

Current liabilities are short term bills and invoices that need to be paid in 12 months or less. The ROCE equation subtracts current liabilities from capital employed, so a company with a lot of current liabilities appears to have less capital employed, and a higher ROCE than otherwise. To counter this, investors can check if a company has high current liabilities relative to total assets.

UniFirst has total assets of US$2.0b and current liabilities of US$180m. As a result, its current liabilities are equal to approximately 9.2% of its total assets. With low levels of current liabilities, at least UniFirst's mediocre ROCE is not unduly boosted.

Our Take On UniFirst's ROCE

If performance improves, then UniFirst may be an OK investment, especially at the right valuation. You might be able to find a better investment than UniFirst. If you want a selection of possible winners, check out this free list of interesting companies that trade on a P/E below 20 (but have proven they can grow earnings).

If you like to buy stocks alongside management, then you might just love this free list of companies. (Hint: insiders have been buying them).

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.

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. Thank you for reading.