Experience the Moravian Effect
Michael Popowycz ’78
Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer at Case Farms
Throughout the semester, Inside Moravian tells the story of one of Moravian’s alums who exemplify what we call the Moravian Effect. The added value from their Moravian experience is created through Moravian’s emphasis on strong, personalized majors, hands-on learning opportunities, and encouragement of a deeper enjoyment of life—which is nurtured by engaged faculty and alumni. Surveys of our graduates show that these qualities help them grow in four years into focused adults who succeed and excel in an increasingly challenging world.
Accounting Major Finds Success on the (Case) Farm
Michael Popowycz ’78 arrived at Moravian College in fall 1974 as a medical technology major. A year later, an organic chemistry course insisted he change direction.
“We just didn’t get along,” the Bethlehem native laughed in hindsight. “It was the only course I have ever had to drop in my life. And I had to decide what I wanted to do for a career.”
At a crossroads, Popowycz switched his major to accounting for a simple reason: the field ran in his family. His older brother was an accounting major at Penn State, and he was succeeding. “I thought if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me,” he reasoned.
Nearly four decades later, Popowycz’s decision, fueled by his thirst to continue learning, has resoundingly paid off. Today, Popowycz is the vice chairman and chief financial officer at Case Farms, which employs more than 3,200 workers and generated $874 million in sales last year. The poultry company processes more than 2.7 million birds per week, producing in excess of 900 million pounds of chicken a year.
Since joining the Ohio Division of Case Foods in 1987 as corporate controller, Popowycz’s climb up its corporate ladder has been steady – impressive for an individual who admits he hadn’t set foot on a farm until he was a college graduate.
Popowycz credits Moravian for laying the foundation for his success, mentioning how the College’s faculty helped him graduate on time – and, more importantly, well versed in accounting. He singled out John Gehman, associate professor emeritus of accounting, for his contributions to his development. “He provided a lot of encouragement and a lot of advice,” Popowycz said of Gehman. “The way he taught the accounting classes somehow made it easy for me to understand.”
However, upon his 1978 graduation, with the economy in a downturn, Popowycz was left to scramble for employment. His one job offer was for a management trainee position at a Reading bank. “It is something I really didn’t want to do,” he explained, but the weight of student loans convinced him to take it. Fortunately, a month on the job, Perdue Farms called with a staff accounting position. Popowycz had interviewed with the company while still on campus, and he jumped at the offer – despite his non-existent farm experience.
“I am a city guy who went to work for a farming company. I had never been on a chicken farm
or any other farm in my life until I moved to Perdue in 1978.”
– Michael Popowycz ’78
“I am a city guy who went to work for a farming company,” laughed Popowycz, who grew up a mile from Moravian’s campus. “I had never been on a chicken farm or any other farm in my life until I moved to Perdue in 1978.”
Although he had every intention of returning to Bethlehem a year later, Popowycz settled in at Perdue and stay for more than seven years, first working in the general accounting department and later in its corporate tax department. “The positive thing about corporate taxes is that you learn a lot about the business that you in,” he explained. “In order to do a really good job in every facet of taxes, you need to understand what the company is all about.”
Eventually, the pull of family led him to Bell Atlantic and downtown Philadelphia. But the city guy didn’t enjoy working in the company’s corporate tax division. “When I was at Perdue, my hands were in everything – the grain side, the processing plant, everything,” he said. “At Bell Atlantic, I was in the consolidated tax department. That is all I did. I had tunnel vision. I knew I wouldn’t last very long there.”
Farm life came calling again shortly thereafter, when Tom Shelton, who was the president at Perdue, invited Popowycz to assist him in his new start-up company, Case Farms. Despite young kids and family ties, he pulled up stakes for Ohio. “I was leaving a company that was making a billion dollars in profit a year, to go to a company that had $13 million in sales,” Popowycz said shaking his head. “It wasn’t even profitable. But my wife and I decided to go on the journey.”
Popowycz rose through the ranks, becoming the company’s corporate treasurer, then chief financial officer, and later serving on the Case Farms Board of Directors. In 2012 – the same year he was elected to the National Chicken Council board of directors – Popowycz took over the role of vice chairman at Case Farms. The journey hasn’t been always been “rosy,” he said. At times, Case struggled to pay its bills, and Popowycz can’t recall how many financings he’s negotiated. Though he can vividly recall the three separate occasions when Case almost went belly up.
“If you go through difficulties and adversities, it makes you a better individual. It made us a better company,” he said. “We run our company today very similarly to how we ran it when didn’t have any cash. We have turned it into a very successful company, and a lot of that has to do with Tom Shelton’s leadership.”
Once an accountant, Popowycz now oversees Case Farms’ entire operations, including live production, processing, administration, sales and finance. “I grew up in the financial side of the business,” he said. \“I’m not an expert on how to process a chicken or how to raise a chicken, but I ask a lot of questions and have learned from the experts in our company and the poultry industry. Every so often I spend a couple days with our live production people down on the farms trying to understand what it takes to grow a very healthy bird.”
This ties into Popowycz’s mantra: Never stop learning.
“I try to learn something new every day,” he concluded. “There isn’t anyone out there who has done a good job and is successful who hasn’t failed a lot. Learn from your mistakes and move forward.”
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