by Joel Crews
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C. Larry Pope, former president and CEO of Smithfield Foods, at a Smithfield Ham Shoppe.
C. Larry Pope reflected on his 35-year career at Smithfield Foods and his achievements.

This past month, C. Larry Pope was among the 250,000 spectators at the 58th Daytona 500. A longtime NASCAR enthusiast and an attendee of many races at the Daytona International Speedway, Pope will certainly remember this year’s race as the first he’s enjoyed as a retiree.

Having taken the checkered flag as president and CEO of Smithfield Foods at the end of 2015, Pope’s finish signaled the next era of leadership for the company. The 61-year-old didn’t start out in the driver’s seat of what is now a pork-producing juggernaut. He joined the company in the role of controller at the age of 26. During the ensuing three-and-a-half decades, Pope has worked his way to the front row at Smithfield, jockeying to put the company in the lead among a field of game competitors in conditions that were often less than ideal.

In early February, Pope took time to reflect on his upbringing, his entrepreneurial spirt, the academic journey and the serendipitous career path that led him to the front door of Smithfield Foods.

“I always thought I’d be a McDonald’s franchisee or own a car dealership,” Pope says, neither of which should come as a surprise, given that he worked at a McDonald’s restaurant as a young man, and his father owned a Ford dealership.

The oldest boy in his family, Pope has an older sister, a younger brother and a younger sister. “I’m the forgotten middle child,” he jokes. Pope’s father served in the US Air Force for four years and Pope was born at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. His father was a radar technician in the service and his training in what was then a new technology, propelled him into his first civilian job as a radio and TV appliance technician. Moving the family south, his father opened a TV-appliance business in Daytona Beach, Florida, “because Florida was exploding with population growth and television was just coming into vogue in a big way,” Pope says.

The family next moved to Franklin, Virginia, where the elder Pope purchased and successfully operated a Ford dealership. After selling that business the family moved to Newport News, Virginia, where the middle son finished high school at the age of 17. He recalls working as a bookkeeper during high school for the retail store his parents operated at the time. The young entrepreneur also earned money doing yard work for neighbors and other odd jobs.

“My father said, ‘you are an early achiever,’” Pope says, admitting the motivation for his industriousness was simple. “I always liked to have a little money in my pocket,” he says. His first official job was with a company that would later be an important customer of Smithfield’s.

“I got my first real paycheck from McDonald’s,” he says, where he adopted a lifelong work ethic of working at least 40 hours per week starting at the age of 16.

Pope says by the eleventh grade he had already decided on a career path. “I went to college and was absolutely sure what I was going to do.” Starting college early, Pope attended the College of William & Mary, where he earned his undergraduate degree in accounting at the age of 21, in 1975. During college he was also working full time, taking on various jobs.

During the school’s athletic events, Pope was tasked with the unenviable job of making sense of ticket sales and took on whatever other jobs were available.

“I’m the fool who balanced the sales of football tickets and basketball tickets,” he jokes. “I drove the school bus; I was a bellman at a Ramada Inn,” he says, and like his father, he also was a TV repairman. One summer, Pope worked on a construction crew that was responsible for installing ceiling tiles at what was then the new Smithfield Packing plant in Smithfield, Virginia.

“I’m one of those guys who gets up early in the morning and goes to work until late in the day – that’s just what I’ve done for 40 years,” he says.

After graduating from college, Pope didn’t stray far from home and went on to become a certified public accountant (CPA) and got a job at the accounting firm that is today known as Pricewaterhouse Coopers. He later would join a private practice for several years.

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