MAKING MONEY ON AMERICA'S TOP MONEY MAKING COMPANIES These six businesses promise their shareholders total returns of as much as 47%.

(MONEY Magazine) – Investors dumped the shares of one company after another that reported results below expectations as first-quarter earnings were announced in late April and May. United Airline's share price fell 6% to $136.25, and Chrysler's 11% to $38.75. The lesson for investors who want to avoid shocks on stocks: Put money in companies that you're confident can keep on making strong profits year after year. ''Earnings are what drive stock prices in the long run,'' says Bill Staton, publisher of the directory America's Finest Companies in Charlotte, N.C. (704-332-7514). Of course, the trick is finding consistent winners. Stock analysts usually look for one or more of these traits: -- A profit margin -- operating or net income as a percentage of sales -- above the average for the industry -- A 20% or better return on equity (ROE) -- earnings as a percentage of the money that shareholders have invested -- And steady annual increases in profit margins and ROE To find today's six best buys among America's most profitable companies, MONEY compiled a list of more than 100 outstanding firms based on at least one of these measures. We then eliminated companies with overpriced shares and those in troubled industries such as health care. And finally, we interviewed more than two dozen analysts for their recommendations of the stocks with the brightest prospects and the most attractive prices of all. Four picks were stocks that recently suffered setbacks, which slashed their prices to bargain levels in the analysts' eyes. The six, all sold on the New York Stock Exchange, are discussed in order of their potential total returns of 28% to 47% over 18 months, starting with the highest.

-- Nike (ticker symbol: NKE; recently traded at $69 a share). The millions of weekend athletes who have taken up Nike's challenge to ''Just Do It'' have made the Beaverton, Ore. company the No. 1 athletic-shoe maker, with annual sales of $3.9 billion, up from $877 million six years ago. Along the way, earnings have rocketed at a 56% compound annual rate, while Nike's ROE has reached 25%. ''Nike has increased its U.S. market share from 16% in 1987 to an estimated 33% this year with better products, marketing and distribution,'' says Dean Witter analyst Willard Brown. Nonetheless, Nike's stock price fell 15% in February after the company warned analysts that the economic slump in Europe, which accounts for 27% of its total sales, would depress this year's expected profits by 4%. Brown and other analysts, who believe sales overseas could grow 15% to 20% annually for three to five years, call the stock a terrific buy. ''Nike will continue to increase its 20% market share in Europe,'' says analyst Bill Whitlow of Pacific Crest Securities in Seattle. In the meantime, he adds, domestic sales could grow 8% to 10% this year. Overall, Brown expects earnings to move up 12% to $4.80 for the fiscal year ended May 1993 and 21% this year as European economies revive. He thinks the stock, which yields 1.2%, could climb 45% to $100 for a 47% return.

-- Sara Lee (SLE; $25.25). In addition to rich desserts, this $14.6 billion company now offers household-name apparel and personal-care products, thanks to its acquisition over the past 15 years of Hanes underwear, L'eggs pantyhose, Bali bras and Isotoner gloves. As a result, the company has increased its net margins for eight years in a row. Moreover, analysts believe that Sara Lee is not vulnerable to the current consumer revolt against high-priced brand-name products. ''Any worry about Sara Lee is misguided, because the company hasn't depended on premium prices,'' says analyst Bonnie Wittenburg at Dain Bosworth in Minneapolis. Sara Lee's shares were caught nonetheless in the brand-name stock rout and have fallen 22% since December -- putting them higher on Wittenburg's buy list. Much of the company's future growth will come from overseas. ''Sara Lee has been buying foreign manufacturers and then expanding the product lines,'' says Wittenburg. She adds that international sales of food and apparel, which account for 34% of total revenues and about 40% of profits, could grow 15% a year, vs. 10% growth domestically. Overall, Wittenburg expects earnings to increase 13% to $1.40 a share for the fiscal year ending June 30 and another 14% to $1.60 in fiscal 1994. Analyst Terry Bivens of Argus Research in New York City thinks the stock, which yields 2.3%, could move up 39% to $35 for a 42% total return.

-- UST (UST; $29.25). Chew on this: Despite the widely publicized decline in cigarette smoking, sales of smokeless tobacco are booming. That's kept $1.2 billion UST, the leader in moist snuff, phenomenally profitable with a 62% return on equity. And since UST and a single rival, $210 million Conwood, control 95% of the moist snuff market, UST isn't threatened by the price competition that threatens to snuff out Philip Morris' growth. Nonetheless, UST's stock price dropped 10% the day in April that Philip / Morris announced it would cut the price of its Marlboros by as much as 40 cents a pack to compete against discount brands. Analysts think investors penalized UST unfairly -- and apparently renowned value investor Warren Buffett agrees. He reportedly has bought as much as 5% of the firm's shares for an estimated $300 million. ''UST is the kind of company Buffett likes -- one with focused management and superior long-term profitability,'' says analyst Kara Cheseby at Legg Mason in Baltimore. (Some people may not want to invest in a company whose products have been attacked as a health risk, even though UST faces no lawsuits related to smokeless tobacco.) Analyst Gary Black of Sanford Bernstein expects UST's earnings to climb 16% to $1.63 a share in 1993 and 15% a year thereafter. Cheseby thinks the stock, which yields 3.3%, could soar 37% to $40 for a 42% total return.

-- Hubbell (HUB Class B; $54.50). This maker of lighting fixtures, outlet boxes and other electrical gizmos might strike you as boring. But Bill Staton at America's Finest Companies sees it differently, saying: ''Hubbell's awesome record should be exciting to investors.'' With annual sales of $840 million, the company has raised earnings and dividends for 32 straight years. Hubbell sells chiefly to contractors and industrial customers nationwide, who are willing to pay premium prices for top-quality products and 48-hour delivery. Because of cost-conscious management and a steady stream of new products, Hubbell's operating profit margin has expanded from 18% to 19% since 1990. That's one of the highest in the electrical equipment industry, where the average is 15%. In addition, ''with $240 million in cash, Hubbell is poised to make several acquisitions of smaller electrical companies,'' says analyst Susan Gallagher of NatWest Securities. ''And the sluggish recovery makes this a great time to buy them.'' Gallagher expects Hubbell to raise earnings 8% to $3.20 a share in 1993 and then grow 12% to 14% annually through 1996. Staton thinks the stock, which yields 2.9%, could rise 32% to $72 for a 36% return.

-- Cooper Tire & Rubber (CTB; $34.50). As Americans keep cars longer (eight years, up from seven 10 years ago) and drive them farther (10,500 miles a year, up from 9,100), the replacement-tire business has grown to 84% of the $9.7 billion car and truck tire market. Cooper Tire & Rubber, with sales of $1.3 billion, has thrived by concentrating on this market rather than the one for factory-installed tires. When the newsletter Standard & Poor's Outlook recently looked at 1,000 firms, Cooper was one of 31 attractive industrial companies with net profit margins that had increased for four straight years. Those expanding margins have driven the company's earnings up 28% a year since 1987. ''With its growing capacity and attention to cost control, Cooper can continue to increase its earnings at a rapid pace,'' says Outlook editor Arnold Kaufman. However, Cooper's stock price fell 14% in April when the company announced its first-quarter sales were 11% lower than expected because of competitors' price reductions. But analysts say that this discounting will likely be temporary. ''As auto sales slow in the second half of the year, other tiremakers may not be able to cut prices so aggressively,'' says analyst David Garrity at McDonald & Co. in New York City. Garrity thinks earnings will grow 20% to $1.55 a share in 1993 and 20% a year thereafter. He says the stock, which yields less than 1%, could rise 30% to $45 for a 31% return.

-- John H. Harland (JH; $26.75). A 22% return on equity can attest to just how lucrative 56 years of printing checks have been for $545 million Harland. But the Decatur, Ga. firm's earnings were flat last year, because of costly acquisitions of other printers. Harland also faced price pressures as growing regional banks demanded better deals. As a result, the stock is now trading 13% below its 1987 high of nearly $31 a share. Harland's cash hoard of $150 million allowed the company, already the country's second largest check printer (after $1.6 billion Deluxe), to pay $86 million for the fourth and fifth largest, $50 million Rocky Mountain Bank Note and $70 million Interchecks. That increased Harland's market share to an estimated 30%. In addition, Geraldine Weiss, editor of Investment Quality Trends in La Jolla, Calif., says: ''Harland is an extremely well-run company.'' For example, the firm is cutting costs by consolidating its operations, closing nine of Interchecks' 16 printing plants. Analyst Marty McDevitt of Cleary Gull in Milwaukee expects earnings to move up 10% to $1.75 in 1993 and then increase 12% or more annually thereafter. Weiss thinks that Harland's stock, which yields 3.5%, could rise 23% to $33 for a 28% total return.

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: NO CREDIT CAPTION: YOU WILL PROFIT AS THEY PROFIT Analysts expect these six lucrative businesses to post steady earnings gains over three to five years. The six stocks, which trade on the New York Stock Exchange, are listed in order of their projected total returns of 28% to 47% within 18 months.