Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU)(NYSE:SU) recently reported stronger-than-expected second-quarter results. Despite the fact that oil had fallen by 50% over the past year, its cash flow was only down by about 12%. Driving this success are the accomplishments the company has made in three areas: operational excellence, capital discipline, and profitable growth.

Operational excellence

On the company’s second-quarter conference call CEO Steven Williams pointed out that “operational excellence is all about steadily improving reliability and reducing costs.” He specifically noted that the company’s plan is “to get to 90% throughput on its oil sands upgrading conflict by 2017,” which is a journey it began in 2012. However, three years into the journey and the company has already met its goal for two straight quarters, even after factoring in maintenance downtime.

Further, Williams noted that the company was working to reduce operating costs by $600-800 million over a two-year period. The company is already well on its way to accomplishing that goal as well. Because of this, Suncor is very pleased with these results, with Williams quipping “so clearly, our operational excellence efforts are paying off.”

Capital discipline

Williams then noted that “capital discipline has been critical to positioning Suncor to outperform in a low oil price environment.” The company has cut its capex budget several times over the past year, including another $400 million reduction announced along with its second-quarter results. However, despite the capex cuts, the company is still able to grow production, even if it is at a slower pace.

That said, what’s even more important than production growth is the fact that Suncor is among the few energy companies actually generating free cash flow at the moment. That’s giving it the ability to actually return more cash to investors at a time when many other energy companies are suspending shareholder distributions.

Profitable growth

The final key area of focus for Suncor is to continue to drive profitable growth. It’s an area that Williams admitted “can be a challenge in the current low price environment.” However, thanks to its Fort Hills asset, it’s still something that Suncor Energy can deliver. He noted that the project will operate with low cash costs and sustaining capital for more than 50 years. As a result, it will generate free cash flow throughout the commodity price cycle. It’s a project that remains on time and on budget to drive significant future growth for Suncor over the next few years.

Investor takeaway

Suncor Energy has made a lot of progress to improve its key focus areas. This progress is yielding tangible results for investors as the company is one of the few that’s generating strong free cash flow in this environment, which it’s increasingly returning to investors. Because of this, the company is thriving at a time that most of its peers are really suffering.

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Fool contributor Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned.