COVER

A COMBATIVE BILLIONAIRE

THE GROWTH OF THE IRVING LEGEND

JOHN DeMONT February 6 1989
COVER

A COMBATIVE BILLIONAIRE

THE GROWTH OF THE IRVING LEGEND

JOHN DeMONT February 6 1989

A COMBATIVE BILLIONAIRE

THE GROWTH OF THE IRVING LEGEND

The two old friends grew up 16 km apart. And it was industrialist Kenneth Colin Irving who cut the highest profile at Louis Robichaud’s Richabucto, N.B., home on June 29,1960—the day after his childhood chum was elected premier of the province. But despite their closeness, the new premier soon tasted Irving’s wrath. The reason: Robichaud abolished long-established municipal tax concessions that Irving considered important to his success. And, in 1)967, the austere tycoon even financed an ajttemptJ—unsuccessful—by the Conservative opposition to topple the tough Acadian premier. Recalled Robichaud, ndw a senator: “Kenneth came to the point where he wanted to own everything. And that could not be tolerated.”

But many New Brunswick residents say that Irving does “own everything” because he quickly, and secretly, built the largest private conglomerate in North America. With burning ambition, driving business tactics and unflagging energy, he became one of the richest men in the world—and he did it without leaving his native, and often economically stagnant, province. Now in semiretirement, the tall, craggy billionaire and his second wife, Winnifred, divide their time between a million-dollar penthouse in downtown Saint John and his $2.5million estate in Southampton, Bermuda—a place that he only reluctantly visits to fulfil tax requirements. And, as he nears his 90th birthday, he remains fit and ramrod straight— a fact that he attributes to his Presbyterian religion and its dictates of hard work and clean living.

Powerful: Despite his pervasive presence in the province where he created thousands of jobs, and where he was the powerful engine that propelled an otherwise listless economy, Irving is as much a myth as he is a blood-andguts businessman. Hundreds of people can be interviewed, but few have ever penetrated the Irving boardroom long enough to glean much real insight. And those few do not dare reveal what they found. As a result, he may be remembered more as a metaphor for immense and unbridled corporate power than as one of the world’s great industrialists. Said Saint John developer Patrick Rocca: “In New Brunswick we have corporate feudalism. And K. C. Irving is the baron.”

The baron was born in Buctouche, a commu-

nity of 2,400 on New Brunswick’s North Shore, to a successful general merchant, James, and his wife, Mary. K.C. turned his first profit at age 12 by personally butchering his flock of ducks and selling them for a $100 profit. After two years at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and a stint in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps during the First World War— although he never saw action in battle—he returned to Buctouche in 1923 and opened a Ford dealership and an Imperial Oil service station. When Imperial cancelled his servicestation licence, he set up his own oil company, which became the foundation of his vast $ 10billion private conglomerate.

In 1928, Irving married Harriet Mac-

Nairn—who died in 1976—and had three sons, James, Arthur and John. As his fortune grew, he developed a reputation for toughness. But, at the same time, the six-foot-tall man with the deep-set grey eyes and long, thin nose always remained the champion of old-fashioned courtesy and consideration—helping visitors on with their coats, and addressing company presidents as “Sir” and even lowly plant laborers as “Mr.” But despite his normal civility, anyone who opposed Irving over the negotiating table quickly found an iron streak lining his unassuming exterior. With company presidents and chairmen of the board, he often abandoned his politeness altogether behind closed doors, pounding tables and stalking out of meetings. During negotiations in Brussels with Standard Oil Co. of California—now Chevron Corp.—he browbeat senior officials of the world’s fifth-biggest oil company, at one point hurling his briefcase to the floor for emphasis.

Tycoon: Alfred Powis, chairman of Torontobased resource giant Noranda Inc., was on the receiving end of a number of Irving blasts during meetings in 1967, after Noranda had wrestled control of Brunswick Mining and Smelting Co. away from the tycoon. In fact, until three years ago, Irving, who remains a major shareholder, continued to show up at the Brunswick annual meetings in Bathurst, N.B., to hammer company officials over what he said was their inept management. Said Powis: “K. C. Irving does not forget. He gets even.”

Organized labor also had to endure Irving’s famous rage on many occasions. The angriest

clash between Irving and the unions came on Nov. 5, 1948, when 40 men in his east Saint John oil refinery went on strike after Irving refused to accept the unanimous recommendations of a New Brunswick conciliation board— which included a demand to reduce the work week at the refinery to the standard 40 hours from 54. Late one evening, he confronted the angry picketing workers outside his plant, pulled off his topcoat and challenged the group of rough-and-ready strikers: “You may be big, but I’m bigger.” In his prime, Irving had the build of a light-heavyweight boxer: no one on the line that night stepped forward to find out just how tough the boss was. And, the next day, when a trucker refused to drive his rig through an angry mob of strikers, Irving angrily pushed him aside, took the wheel and crashed ahead. The strikers leaped for safety and, later, police filed reckless-driving charges against Irving and two aides— but the charges were eventually dropped.

Irving was just as tough with the Saint John city council as he was with the provincial government. As did cabinet ministers, Saint John aldermen regularly gave way to Irving’s biggest and mostoften-used threat: if they did not bend to his will, he would pull his companies out of the province.

As a result, at one point, some Irving companies were . 2b

not even liable for any pollution that might spill from their many operations. Robichaud was one of the only New Brunswick politicians ever to stand up to him. Recalled Robichaud: “Irving always seemed to think that what was good for Irving was good for New Brunswick.” Robichaud may in fact be right because, as Irving once said: “Business and politics don’t mix in New Brunswick. This province is too small for politics.”

Energy: Despite his ambition, Irving never pushed anyone harder than he pushed himself. Even in his 60s, he had more stamina than his hardworking sons, putting in 16to 18-hour days during which he would eat chocolates for energy. He dramatically demonstrated his addiction to work in 1951 when he narrowly escaped death as his Grumman Mallard burst into flames on takeoff from Saint John. He crawled out of the wreckage with singed hair, but quickly returned to his office, where he put in a 12-hour day. Irving still works tirelessly on his pet project—the reforestation of New Brunswick. After all, he controls 25 per cent of the province’s timberlands—a vast personal forest that even his old friend Robichaud was powerless to reduce. In the end, not even governments—nor personal friendships—could stop Ir-

ving’s insatiable drive.

JOHN DeMONT