Pope to retire

Published 1:12 pm Wednesday, November 18, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

C. Larry Pope was advised to conceal his youth when he interviewed for his first job with Smithfield Foods.

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As he went to Joseph W. Luter III’s office for his employment interview, Luter’s second-in-command, Aaron Trub, advised him not to tell Luter how young he was. It was 1980 and Luter had returned to Smithfield only four years earlier to take over what had once been his father’s business.

Pope, just 26 years old with a bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary and few years of public and private accounting work under his belt, was hired as comptroller of was then a basically bankrupt business.

“We were nothing,” Pope said of the company’s financial position at that time.

Pope wasn’t even sure he wanted to work in the meatpacking business, but he was impressed with Luter’s emphasis on family and community. He took the job and has never looked back. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

 Fast forward 35 years.

After serving as President and CEO for nine years, Pope, 61, announced Monday he is retiring from the company that went from “nothing” to a $15-billion global food company and the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer.

Taking his place will be Kenneth M. Sullivan, who currently serves as president and chief operating officer. He will take the reigns at the end of the year. 

Pope said Luter asked nothing about his professional experience during that interview, but instead concentrated on his family, his local ties and personal life. Pope grew up in Franklin and Newport News and graduated from Ferguson High School.

Pope came on board as Smithfield Foods was beginning to expand, its first major acquisition Gwaltney Inc. in 1981.

Gwaltney was the town’s rival meat packing plant and the Gwaltney and Luter families had a long history of competition.

Smithfield Foods has continued to grow since that first purchase, and the past two years have been the best for Smithfield’s financial performance, according to Pope. Recently the company has worked hard to implement its “One Smithfield” initiative aimed at solidifying the company’s position as a global leader in packaged meats.

The sale of Smithfield Foods to Shuanghui, now the WH Group, in 2013, has opened up markets in pork-hungry China.

The sale stirred up a good deal of concern in the United States, as it was considered the largest take-over of an American corporation by a Chinese company.

Pope said that despite fears that Foods would leave its hometown, the Chinese have basically “left us alone.”

Mostly, it’s two different cultures trying to figure each other out and it will take time, Pope said.

Pope said when the purchase was made, he promised to work with the WH Group to enable a smooth transition.

“I’ve sort of fulfilled my obligation,” he said, adding that he’s eager to slow down and spend time with his family.

One value held by Luter, and Pope has tried to emulate, is the notion of giving back to the community.

Luter is well-known for his multiple contributions to Smithfield, including the beloved Windsor Castle Park. Pope has continued with Foods contributions to the community, including Taste of Smithfield, proposed ballfields in Smithfield, Isle of Wight Academy, Christian Outreach and more. 

Foods executives always remembered that Smithfield is where the company is based and has a responsibility to the town, Pope said. At the same time, the company has never tried to run the town, he said.

Many Smithfield leaders are concerned about the future of Foods and if it will continue its legacy of philanthropy to the town of Smithfield.

Pope said there is no talk of moving the headquarters elsewhere, but he cannot speak on how future management will interact with the town.

Pope’s retirement becomes effective Dec. 31.

“It’s been a great ride,” he said.{/mprestriction}