John Irwin threw good money after other people’s “bad”—and built a great business
John Irwin threw good money after other people’s “bad”—and built a great business
IF IT SHOULD come to pass that John Irwin is introduced into your living room via the radio, rest assured that the announcer will describe him as a Dynamic Personality. As for myself, it seems more sensible to say that he is a citizen who began with nothing to speak of, a man who forced his way through the business scrimmage to emerge on top of the heap. This may be done in various ways, it seems, and as the result of numerous combinations of mental and physical equipment. In Irwin’s case the essential ingredients have been a love of the salesman’s trade, coupled to high executive ability; a willingness to wager his personal bank balance on his owm judgment and to fight like a tiger when the signs have proclaimed his cash as good as lost : an ability to capture and keep the trust and confidence of others; and. by no means least, a tremendous store of energy and the belief that hard work is good, clean fun. Presumably this is what is meant by “dynamic,” as the term is used by broadcasters.
If you are a member of that noble army which drives vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines it is an easy matter to orient Invin for you, for somewhere near your residence stands one of the innumerable monuments he has erected to commemorate a decision to save his personal bank roll. That monument takes the form of a number of gasoline pumps, standing by a chalet over which a crimson sign proclaims the fact that here is a service station operated to sell the wares of the McColl-Frontenac refineries. Irwin is McColl-Frontenac, or that part of it which makes the w'heels go round ; the reason for his presence being found in the fact that once upon a time the wheels refused to budge.
He was not alw'ays an oil man, but came into the world of gas and lubricants from the paint-making trade, for the excellent reason that he had invested heavily in a refining corporation which threatened to go broke and so refine the bank balance of John Irwin, investor. The result was Invin’s decision to plow new dollars into its structure to salvage those which had disappeared and so put the business on its feet or go to the wall in the attempt. That is how McColl-Frontenac came into being. And that is why Irwin forsook a highly successful career in paint-making to become a Big Gas and Oil Man. But let us begin at the beginning.
Ability Plus Confidence
THE RECORD establishes the fact that the young man’s first demands on the commissariat were uttered in the city of penitentiaries, limestone quarries and the Queen’s football team the community called Kingston, Ontario on March 29, 1881. Thereafter he neglected to do his homew'ork as a student in the town’s Collegiate Institute and, graduating, found a job as a junior employee w'ith the home-town firm of Edwin Chown and Son. That is John Irwin’s Book of Genesis.
His exodus from Kingston came in the fall of 1899, a little over two years after he had gone to work for Chown. In Montreal he first worked in the offices of, and then joined,
the paint-manufacturing firm of Henderson and Potts. In 1905 he journeyed west as far as Winnipeg to supervise his employers’ affairs in the prairie country, and in 1910 came back east as far as Toronto to manage the branch which the company, now renamed Brandram-Henderson, had established in the Ontario capital. The year 1911 found him in Montreal again, as assistant manager. The next year was marked by a decision to stop working for other people and to launch his own craft into the stormy paint-and-vamish seas. It is from 1912, therefore, that the story of John Irwin’s career begins to behave in the manner sometimes called “going places.”
A check-up of his equipment established his |x>ssession of two of the elements essential to the acquisition of a going concern. First, he had his eye on the corporation he wished to purchase and knew that it could be secured for a stipulated sum. Second, he had supreme confidence in his own ability to make it go. So the only element lacking was the nutritive vitamin C of commerce, the name of which is Cash. Irwin’s natural conclusion was that he must find some dollars somewhere, for to save these from his earnings would take too long, as there would be no sense in going into business for himself at the age of eighty. Obviously, funds must come from some outside source. Hence Irwin began to marknames on the backs of used envelopes, until in due course he scratched out every name but one, put on his hat and went to see the man who had given him his first job.
With what magic brew he charmed the senses of Chown of Kingston, I cannot tell you. Call it friendship, confidence, respect for the youngster’s ability and probity or call it a mixture of all these and you will not be far wrong. In any case, when the young paint man returned from the conference with his first employer the backing necessary for purchase of the established firm of McArthur-Comeille a cool $100.000 of it, says rumor was in his pocket. Thus came into being the new paint house called McArthur-Irwin, as presiding genius of which John Irwin saved the surface of bams, bungalow's, villas, farmhouses, garages and woodsheds for a matter of fifteen years, reaching out for new markets year by year, increasing turnover from season to season, and proceeding by these methods to a point at which he came to be recognized as a figure of note in the Dominion’s world of trade. John Irwin had come from Nowhere and obviously was headed toward Somewhere.
Meanwhile in the eyes of the world Irwin w'as simply a gentleman of pigments and little else. He was J. I., the Paint Man -a fellow who would remain in his pigeonhole until the end of the chapter and accumulate a fortune by
pi daubing bright colors on the nation’s homes and outbuildings. Then Irwin bought a block of stockand thereby hangs a tale.
Along the waterfront in the east end of Montreal, gentlemen of promotional bent were erecting a plant with valuable patents for producing a brand-new motor fuel while their salesmen went atout the town selling neatly en scrolled certificates of share in the enterprise. The subject of these paragraphs had listened to the siren song, with the result that a goodly portion of the profits from paint had been sent along the riverbank to assist in paying for the building of the tanks and other impedimenta which clutter the premises of such concerns. But the matter did not go well. Money wells ran dry. Markets BJB for the new refinery’s products were conspicuous by their absence. A visit to the bankruptcy court seemed i nminent.
It was about this time that John Irwin stood before his mirror, and to his reflection spake certain remarks usually held in reserve for defaulting clients and sliced golf balls. Which being done, he repaired to his business headquarters where, instead of proclaiming a season of public lamentation, he decided to see what could be done about securing a new deal. A trip to Germany and the United States resulted in success.
In short order Irwin effected a reorganization via a new charter, and appeared on the scene with a new company, a new name, and with the refinery intact. That was Step Number One toward the act of salvage. The new alignment was now in good case to supply gas and oil to the waiting world, provided crudes could be obtained and the public persuaded to |x>ur the results of refinement into tanks and crankcases. I his was done by acquiring a distributing company operating in the Province of Quebec, known as Tidionte.
Not satisfied, Irwin’s next step was to switch on the imaginative side of his mind and locate larger markets. So the Paint Man bought a ticket to Toronto and went out to talk about oil. In the Queen City he dickered argumentatively and at length with financial people and others, the result being that McColl Brothers, distributors of fluids devised to make automobiles proceed, was hitched to Frontenac Refinery and the birth of McColl-Frontenac took place a complete set-up from crude to crankcase and from coast to coast in Canada.
A Worker, Not a Manipulator
SINCE THAT DAY in 1927 the salesman in Irwin has been busy with the building up of merchandising schemes, the establishment of new distribution contacts, the erection of standardized service stations, and with all manner of plans for putting his new products into the insides of the nation’s flivvers and limousines.
Meanwhile, the business executive in him has fashioned a manufacturing unit which sends out its tentacles into the oiliest comers of Christendom, brings raw materials to Montreal, relines them and then funnels them east, west and north to the public through outlets which seem innumerable to anyone who believes in signs. So John Irwin became an Oil Man, primarily because he could not stomach the idea of being left with someone else’s bag to hold. He remains an oil man because he likes it and because of the fun to be found in creating a business which olfers scope for his energies.
Had Irwin toen primarily a dollar worshipper his oil money would have disappeared down the drains of St. James Street, for it is noticeable that those who think only in terms of dollars to be won or lost seldom have the courage to go through the process known as toughing-it-out. \\ hen he decided to salvage his refinery investment his first job was to throw as many new dollars as he could find into the hole a process likely to drive any man into the hole with
Continued on page 48
Continued from page 21
! the dollars, unless he watches his steps. But dollars, to an Irwin, are the accessories of industry, slips of paper which make wheels go and which, by coming back later suitably iced with dividends, indicate that matters are proceeding according to plan. In the last analysis the game’s the thing.
To describe him as a human dynamo is an accurate assessment of the man, for certainly the impression he gives is that of a gentleman heading for definite destinations under a full head of ixnver. Regard, then, his modes of thought, as revealed by the Question and Answer route to this interviewer.
How did it happen. I asked him, that he had chosen paint as the original outlet for his energies?
Irwin wasn’t sure. He wanted to sell things the sort of things the world needs in its daily comings and goings. Paint is one of those things. It brightens the community, makes things look better, protects. The paint business is useful. Hence paint.
As to the McArthur-Corneille purchase, that wasn’t as difficult to bring off as you might think.
“It wasn’t courage it required.” he told me, "because I had belief in the line and in myself. I knew paint and how to sell good paint. So it wasn’t hard to persuade other Ixx)pie to come in.”
But the oil business—that was a different affair. “If it hadn’t been obvious that a big business could be built up, I’d have steered away and taken my loss,” he added. "But you can’t take a loss without fighting, when you know the thing is sound at the core. That would be a combination of cowardice and folly.”
Apparently neitner of these is a quality ^ for which Irwin entertains high regard. So ! he went into the oil business.
The man is a bundle of nervous energy ! and unrest. As we talked he squared the I room with short, hurried steps, pausing to
look through the window and down to St. James Street, returning to his desk to fidget with papers, pens, ashtrays and the assorted paraphernalia of the day’s work. The telephone clattered. Irwin snatched the receiver, barked, grinned, told a funny story—always the salesman —slammed the telephone back into its cradle.
He golfs with the same energy which he gives to work—with ardor and language, they tell me. In his younger days he was a footballer of parts and occupied the fullback’s post on that crack fifteen of the early 1900’s—the Montreal Britannias. Newspaper files of that robust period indicate that young Monsieur Irwin liked it—and liked the going to be heavy. In his dubs, in his politics, in all the things he does, he takes the world at the gallop, insisting on arriving at his stopping places with as much speed as may be compatible with proper conduct of the matter at hand. He likes new toys and was one of Montreal’s first motoring enthusiasts, one who still points with pride to summonses which came in as the result of scorching down Sherbrooke Street at fifteen miles an hour. Life is good fun. just so long as there is a great deal to be done and no time to relax.
In fine, John Irwin is one of the workers, not one of those who win fortune by manipulation—an operator, not a promoter. Such industrial phenomena as he has brought into being were promoted to provide outlets for his energies as a producer, not for the winning of quick profits—thereafter to leave the problems to others.
There is nothing particularly complex about the formula from which he is derived. Take handfuls of energy. Add self-confidence and knowledge in equal parts. Throw in a liberal dose of commercial probity and plenty of courage to season the pot. Stir well—and serve piping hot. That is the Irwin recipe. Unfortunately, the essential ingredients are not always easy to obtain.
What Becomes of Old Corsets
CTRAIGHT chimney-sweeping jobs are ^ not very many these days, but J. Wesley Smith, whose main business now is fixing defective flues, still has about four a month. His men use the famous J. Wesley Smith corset cleaner. The roof man fixes a heavy weight underneath a wadded-up corset;
regular old-fashioned corset. This is let down on a rope to the bottom of the chimney and then dragged up again. Corsets are fine cleaners because of the whalebone in them: it bends one way when going down and the other when coming up. The garters are always left on the corsets as roughage; helps a lot.—Readers' Digest.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.