We have a three-pronged strategy for long-term growth that is centered on the consumer and our competitive advantages: Grow Revenue, Leverage Scale, and Capital Deployment.
As the predominant player in a highly fragmented industry, our estimated 16% revenue market share in North America is about ten times greater than any other consolidator in our industry. Approximately 80% of the industry consists of independently-owned operators.
Our funeral service and cemetery operations consist of funeral service locations, cemeteries, funeral/cemetery combination locations, crematoria, and other related businesses. Within our operating segments, we have a diverse set of revenue streams including retail merchandise sales, consumer services, and real estate operations. We have differentiated our operations by diversifying across a wide range of consumer preferences. We place a high emphasis on the consumer who is focused on ethnic traditions and cultural preferences, which are represented through our various Dignity Memorial® providers. We also continue to invest and expand in SCI Direct, which is predominately focused on the cremation consumer.
Unlike many retailers and service providers, who provide merchandise and services in a short time frame, we have $1.6 billion annually in preneed sales that are substantially deferred to our growing backlog, which ended the year at $10 billion. Preneed sales allow consumers to express their wishes about their funeral and cemetery arrangements at a convenient time, relieving their loved ones of these emotional and financial decisions at the time of need. These preneed sales help to increase our future market share by creating a relationship with the customer, who will use our services at the time of need, which is also when the revenue will be recognized.
We have sometimes been compared to retailers and service providers that are asset light. However, we are asset rich due to:
Annually, the Compensation Committee selects our peer group by employing compensation experts to help with the process, looking at not only revenue size but also enterprise value and business characteristics. Due to the unique nature of our industry, and our differentially large size in comparison to other publicly-traded companies in the industry, our peer group encompasses diverse industries.
In 2016, adjusted earnings per share grew 9%, in line with our earnings growth framework.
Our performance in 2016 reflected continued momentum in preneed cemetery sales, which grew by almost 5% for the year. We continued to execute on our preneed sales strategy by investing in our sales teams and the tools we utilize to improve our productivity and enhance the customer-facing experience. We also invested in developing our cemetery properties with a broad array of tiered product options.
As anticipated, our core funeral revenue was challenging to grow, with tough year-over-year comparisons to 2015 in the first three quarters of 2016. However, a bright spot to temper this challenge has been impressive growth in our recognized preneed revenue. Additionally, throughout the year, our operating teams have done a great job of improving efficiency and managing costs. We also continued to grow our funeral preneed backlog, posting a 4% growth in preneed funeral sales for the year, as we utilize technology to remain more relevant to our employees as well as our consumer audience.
Excluding cash tax payments, our adjusted operating cash flow increased 2%, primarily as a result of higher earnings particularly associated with increased cemetery profits, lower cash interest, and higher installment cash receipts from prior preneed cemetery sales.
Adjusted Earnings Per Share and Adjusted Operating Cash Flow are non-GAAP financial measures. Please see Annex A for disclosures and reconciliations to the appropriate GAAP measure.
Return on capital deployed is an important concept for us. While we have evaluated both return on assets and return on invested capital, we ultimately concluded that return on equity is a more appropriate measure for us due to the unique nature of our balance sheet.
Specifically, we include $4.3 billion of preneed trust assets and related trust receivables on our balance sheet where the associated revenue is deferred and does not benefit earnings for an average of 10-12 years. These assets are not available for use in our business until we provide services or merchandise to our customers. Our balance sheet also contains $1.4 billion of perpetual care trust assets, which are created with the purpose of generating income to mitigate the costs of maintaining cemetery grounds and property into perpetuity. SCI has very restricted access to the corpus of these funds. We use a normalized return on equity target as a component of senior management’s annual incentive compensation, along with targets for normalized earnings per share, normalized free cash flow per share, and preneed sales production growth.
We believe it is important to align annual performance with a focus on driving superior shareholder return. For further information about our incentive compensation programs, please go to page 32.
We have a number of initiatives designed to help our Company grow revenue and help our associates perform more efficiently.
What I am most proud of in 2016 is the recognition by J.D. Power of our commitment to service excellence. We know our success is dependent on building a culture of consistent, high quality, customer satisfaction and enduring customer relationships. In 2016, we were honored to receive the J.D. Power President’s Award in recognition of our dedication to service excellence. SCI and its family of brands including Dignity Memorial® join an exclusive group of only twelve other companies to receive this esteemed award in J.D. Power’s 47-year history. I am immensely proud of the great service our associates provide every day, and I am honored to be part of such a warm and caring organization.