The Wrong Way to Make Millions

K. C. Irving has made a fool of legend: A Maritimer, he stayed home. A lone wolf, he battled the eastern combines. A brand-new capitalist, he bought dying businesses. And, even as a genuine tycoon, he only wants to be left alone

DAVID MacDONALD August 15 1953

The Wrong Way to Make Millions

K. C. Irving has made a fool of legend: A Maritimer, he stayed home. A lone wolf, he battled the eastern combines. A brand-new capitalist, he bought dying businesses. And, even as a genuine tycoon, he only wants to be left alone

DAVID MacDONALD August 15 1953

The Wrong Way to Make Millions

K. C. Irving has made a fool of legend: A Maritimer, he stayed home. A lone wolf, he battled the eastern combines. A brand-new capitalist, he bought dying businesses. And, even as a genuine tycoon, he only wants to be left alone


KENNETH COLIN IRVING, a hawk-faced native son of Buctouche, N.B., has pulled what, by all odds, seem like three colossal boners. The first was failing to depart from New Brunswick as soon as he had reached the age of reason. For longer than they care to recall, many citizens of that province have felt that the first step to success is to pack up and leave. Cases in point are Lord Beaverbrook, Sir James Dunn, Bonar Law, R. B. Bennett and Louis B. Mayer.

Irving’s second apparent bloomer, committed at the age of twenty-five, was in trying to buck the biggest oil company in Canada with a single gasoline tank and not even sufficient cash to pay for it.

The third was getting into the lumber business during the depression when prudent men were hastily getting out of it.

Such consistent rashness has left K. C. Irving today, at fifty-four, the most powerful figure in New Brunswick and reputedly the wealthiest man in the Maritime provinces. His various interests are now calculated to be worth more than one hundred million dollars.

His lone gas tank has developed into a large oil company with a string of twelve hundred retail outlets in the Maritimes and Quebec. He sells as much gas and oil in the east today as does Imperial Oil, the colossus he brashly took on.

His timl>er holdings, a million and a half acres, are larger than Prince Edward Island. He owns or controls luml>er and pulp mills in New Brunswick, New York, Maine and Quebec, the biggest of which is currently undergoing a twenty-million-dollar expansion.

He has two hundred buses which carry passengers and freight on the highways of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and provide the transit systems in Saint John, Moncton and Fredericton. His Irving Oil Company alone controls twenty-four subsidiary firms which sell cars, hardware, auto accessories and real estate, operate ocean-going tankers and own an hotel. He also has growing oil and shipping interests in Panama and other Caribbean countries.

His hold is said to extend much further. Though be refuses to confirm or deny it, Irving is reputed to be controlling shareholder in three of New Brunswick’s four English-language daily newspapersthe Saint John Telegraph-Journal and Evening Times-Globe, the Moncton Times-Transcript and was regarded, until the Liberal Government was swept out of office last fall, as a backstage pxditical string-fouller. He has often been styled ‘The Man Who Owns New Brunswick,” and has earned this sobriquet without migrating further taan the one hundred and twenty-five miles from Buctouche to Saint John.

Irving’s influential position was noted two years ago in the New Brunswick legislature. When a bill granting wide paowers of expropriation to the Irving Pulp and Papier Company came before a House ommittee for scrutiny, Harold Atkinson, a Liberal member, told his colleagues bluntly, “New Brunswick needs Irving a great deal worse than Irving needs New Brunswick.”

Yet most of the ten thousand p>eople who work for Irving, and the added thousands who know his name, know slightly less about K. C. himself than they do of, say, Greta Garbo. Irving, too, wants to be left alone. He hates publicity and has l>een remarkably adept at avoiding it. His name isn’t in any Who’s Who, not even the local publication, New Brunswick Names. He is seldom mentioned in the newsp)ap)ers.

To those who do not know him — that; is, nearly everybody in New Brunswick—Irving’s name conjures up) the picture of a high-p)owered overlord who swaggers about exuding wealth and ill-temp)er. Yet Irving is a quiet, almost painfully pxdite man who “sirs” and “misters” bank presidents and janitors with equal sincerity. He wears conservative business suits and tame ties, pierced by a small diamond stickpin, his only outward sign of opulence. He doesn’t drink or smoke and his strongest oaths run to “heck” and “gosh-darn.” He owns a Cadillac but usually drives a medium-p)riced Meteor (he sells them), doesn’t tip) lavishly and lives in a large house on Saint John’s fashionable Mount Pleasant that is well appointed but not elaborate.

Six feet tall, Irving carries his two hundred p)ounds lightly. He has deep)-set even grey eyes, a prominent aquiline nose and a straight mouth that often twists up) into a smile. His brows are dark and heavy and, whenever possible, he keeps his silver-ringed bald head covered with a snap-brim fedora.

He is a highly controversial figure. According to his enemies, not a few of whom have been bested by him in business deals, his sole interest in life is in making more money. His admirers say that, even so, New Brunswick could use more men like him. Some labor leaders have branded him a unionbusting reactionary and called for a f)ublic investigation of his companies. Other labor leaders defend him as a shrewd but high-princip)led employer.

On two p)oints his admirers and his detractors are agreed: he drives his employees hard and he works himself harder. He once told a group) of friends, “The trouble with many businessmen is that when they have made some progress they sit back and rest.” Irving seldom rests. When he is in Saint John his work day runs from twelve to sixteen hours.

Irving has four telephones in his home and keeps one of them at his elbow during breakfast . Pampering an old stomach ulcer, he picks his diet carefully and eats slowly. He has put in an hour’s work by the time he arrives at the dingy wedge-shaped waterfront building that houses the Irving Oil Company. The outer offices are drab and crowded but Irving’s is })aneled in dark oak, with rich blue carpeting and brown velvet drapes. He sits between twin glass-tof)ped desks, swiveling around to pick up telephones that jangle constantly and to answer a squawking office intercom.

He is away from Saint John half the time. In a single year (1948) Irving spent eight hundred hours in the air in his private pdane, covering about one hundred and twenty thousand miles. He adds thousands more by rail, car, ship) and airline. A commercial traveler from Moncton saw Irving at Montreal Airpx>rt one day last year. He was carrying on conversations in three telephone booths at once, like a nervous bookmaker before j)Ost time.

His trif)S are seldom pdanned more than an hour in advance. One Sunday a few years ago his wife, Harriet, p)honed him in Buctouche. She was told he’d left for Liverpool, N.S. Liverpool said he was en route to Quebec. She finally located him that night in New York.

Two years ago Irving narrowly missed death when his Grumman Mallard burst into flames and crashed on a take-off from Saint John. He crawled out with singed hair, calmly went back to his office and put in a day’s work.

Though he employs a staff of highly able depmties, Irving doesn’t delegate much authority. “He’s a one-man show,” says Senator Neil McLean, of Saint John. “He may listen to the men around him but he makes all the decisions.” Duncan Wathen, an Irving trouble shooter, says: “When your boss knows more Continued on page 42

The Wrong Way to Make Millions


about your work than you do you’ve got to stay on your toes.”

Jimmy Wade, Irving’s former pilot, diagnoses the loyalty of his executives as “Irvingitis.” “They really like the guy and they keep working like blazes, hoping they’ll rise with him.” A story is told about one of Irving’s senior officials who went home after a day at the office. Irving phoned, asking his company on a trip that night to northern New Brunswick. The man hadn’t had his dinner and said so. “Never mind,” Irving replied, “I’ve got it with me in the car.” When they drove off a few minutes later Irving reached into his poeket and produced dinner—a chocolate bar. The official is no longer with Irving.

Irving demands that his truckers, bus drivers and service-station operators treat the public courteously. He does the same himself. A visitor was in Irving’s home on a Sunday afternoon when the phone rang. The ensuing dialogue went like this:

“You Irving, the oil man?” “Yes, sir, I am.”

“Well, this is Mulrooney, of St. Patrick Street.”

“Yes, Mr. Mulrooney, what can I do for you?”

“Where in hell’s my oil?”

“Haven’t you received your oil, Mr. Mulrooney?”

“You’re damned right I haven’t.”

“Well, sir, I’m very sorry to hear that, and it’s a cold day, too, isn’t it?” Irving took his address and phone number, dialed his oilyard, called Mulrooney and told him his oil was on the way. Half an hour later he broke off a conference to call Mulrooney again and ask if it had arrived.

In his angriest moments Irving’s language would hardly cause a Sister of Charity to blush. Shortly after the war a corvette he had just bought foundered in a storm off Nova Scotia. The crew was taken off and the vessel went down, uninsured. Irving’s loss was twenty - five thousand dollars. “Gosh-darn,” said Irving.

If he speaks softly, Irving also carries a big stick. Several times he has swung it at labor.

On Nov. 5, 1948, forty men in his East Saint John oilyard went on strike after Irving refused to accept the unanimous recommendations of a conciliation board. Among other things, the employees wanted to cut their work week from fifty-four hours to forty. Late in the day Irving approached the picket lines outside his plant, pulled off his topcoat and yelled at the strikers, “You may be big, but I’m bigger.” The gesture was taken as an invitation to fight. Irving says he wasn’t asking for trouble, but “it never pays to talk with your coat on.” There was no fight.

Next day, when a nonstriker balked at driving his truck past the picket lines, Irving pushed him aside, took the wheel and sped through. Two company officials followed him in cars. The strikers scattered. Several of them

retreated to the nearest police station ] and had summonses for reckless driving served on Irving and his two aides. The charges were finally withdrawn. Two days later Irving appealed to the Supreme Court of New Brunswick and got a thirty-day interim injunction against the picketeers. He claimed the picketing was illegal because it stalled the flow of trucks from his yard, a not improbable objective of the strike. Officials of the Canadian Congress of Labor protested that Irving was using the courts to break a legal strike. True or not, the Strike was j soon broken and the union folded with it. Irving was nosing around his plywood plant a few years ago when he fell from a ladder and broke several ribs. He was still laid up when wage talks were due to open with the plant’s CCL union. He promptly called the union officials to his home. For more than five hours they bargained around his bedside. Irving was at his uncompromising best. Later Angus MacLeod, a spindly little CCL organizer, was asked how the patient held behaved. He replied dryly, “As well as could be expected.” MacLeod and other officials of the CCL have called Irving an archenemy of the labor movement who exploits the people and resources of New Brunswick with equal impartiality. On the other hand, James Whitebone, president of the Saint John Trades and ! Labor Council, an affiliate of the CCL’s rival, the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, rates him highly. “He doesn’t give us everything we want,” Whitebone says, “but you’ve got to respect him.” He adds, “You’ve got to respect any man who employs ten thousand people.” A friend of Irving’s sums up his attitude to labor unions this way: “He feels they have their place but he won’t be shoved around by anyone. K. C. is a rugged individualist. He never worked a forty-hour week in his life.” Irving was born on March 14, 1899, in Buctouche, a quiet farming and oyster-fishing town on the eastern coast of New Brunswick which, in later Prohibition days, thrived on the proceeds from bootlegged liquor. His father, James, was a well-to-do storekeeper and lumber-mill owner who raised his son by strict Presbyterian standards and gave him a quasireligious regard for the value of money. Irving worked in his father’s general store after school and raised a flock of ducks in his back yard. When neighbors complained about the racket they raised he killed, dressed and sold them at a hundred-dollar profit, his first. He spent two years at two different universities (Acadia and Dalhousie), did a stint in the Royal Flying Corps before World War I ended and came back to Buctouche to work in the family store. One of his jobs was collecting unpaid bills for his father. Early in the Twenties he started selling Model T Fords. He took old buggies and even horses on trade-ins. Though not everyone would buy his kind of car, Irving reasoned, everyone who owned one needed gas. So he got the Imperial Oil agency for Kent County. Soon he was doing ninety-five percent of the gas and oil business in Kent County.

In 1924, after other merchants who didn’t like buying oil from a competitor complained to Imperial, the company suddenly took Irving’s agency away from him and decided to put up its own storage tank in Buctouche. Irving moved swiftly. He ordered his own tank and a carload of gasoline from the States. He admits he had to do “a lot of fast footwork” to pay for them. The two tanks arrived in Buctouche

the same day. Trving won the race to get them installed. Even so, his closest friends predicted he’d lose his coveralls. Irving Sr. and an uncommonly wealthy farmer, Tom Nowlan, bought into Irving’s business and backed him with more than a hundred thousand dollars. Irving later purchased Nowlan’s interests. He built other service stations in Kent County and painted them red, white and blue, the same colors as Imperial’s. Today Irving and Imperial share seventy percent of the Maritimes’ oil business and Irving is spreading through eastern Quebec.

The Irving Oil Company was formed in 1928 when Irving moved to Saint John and built a five-story garage. He financed the firm through Eastern Securities Ltd. In this he met Frank Brennan, a stock salesman who three years later teamed with him to form their own securities company. Pestered daily for hot market tips, Irving soon retired from the company and left his financing to Brennan, who still handles it.

To build more service stations Irving formed his own small construction company and got the work done cheaper. At the same time he hustled around the Maritimes contracting independent garages to sell his brands of gas and oil. He brought most of his gasoline in from the United States but today the bulk of it is purchased at a cut rate from his erstwhile employers, Imperial Oil.

At the bottom of the depression Irving took over his father’s limping lumber business, injected some oil profits into it and kept it out of bankruptcy. Three years later he formed SMT (Eastern) Ltd., a bus line named after Scotia Motor Transports, of Scotland.

It was in Nova Scotia that Irving suffered his only big setback. There in 1938 he ran into a fight with Fred C. Manning, a Halifax bus-line and service-station owner, over exclusive highway franchises. Manning won.

Ten years later Irving evened the score. In 1942 Manning had acquired the New Brunswick Power Company — which Irving had been angling to get—and the right to run Saint John’s transit system. Manning spent a million and a quarter dollars boosting his power output and then saw his plant suddenly expropriated by the New Brunswick government. After protests over the streetcar service Manning was providing, the city got permission from the legislature to break its contract with Manning. Irving stepped in with an offer to provide buses and disclosed that he had seventeen new ones stored and ready. It was a typical Irving gamble that paid off. He had paid three hundred thousand dollars for the buses before he was sure of a job for them. After a long row that wound up in the courts Irving won the franchise, virtually pushing Manning’s trams and buses off the streets.

Irving got a big shove from World War II. Shortly before it began he bought control of Canada Veneers Ltd. and it became the British Empire’s biggest producer of the paper-thin wood used on Mosquito bombers. At Buctouche he opened a shipyard which built invasion barges and gave jobs to half the town’s working force.

He also acquired the Saint John Sulphite Company and the Dexter (New York) Pulp and Paper Company, the latter when it was virtually in the hands of the receiver. He revamped both and doctored them back into the money. His knack for reviving dying industries recently prompted a friend to remark, “K. C. is like a watchmaker. He takes a business apart,

finds out what’s wrong with it and puts it back together so it really ticks. And he usually has enough pieces left over to make a wheelbarrow.”

In 1945 Irving worked one of the biggest land deals in New Brunswick’s history. For approximately a million dollars he bought out the old New Brunswick Railway Company. It owned no rolling stock but it did have the deeds to a million acres of choice timber stands in northern New Brunswick.

Immediately after the war he got into shipping. He bought five warsurplus corvettes, converted them to tankers and wood carriers at Buctouche and launched the Kent Line.

Until a startling landslide last September pushed New Brunswick’s Liberal Government out after seventeen years in office, Irving was said to be a power behind the throne. In 1925, at the start of his career, he helped back A. A. Dysart, an up-anddown Kent County politician, who in that year became the Opposition leader in New Brunswick. Ten years later

Dysart was premier. Dysart, now a county-court judge, says Irving never asked for favors. Dysart was succeeded in 1940 by J. B. McNair, a Fredericton lawyer. In 1951 Irving’s pulp-andpaper company was given power to expropriate lands along the St. John River and McNair was accused of “giving the province away” to the Irving interests.

“I know people used to say that Irving ran the government,” McNair has said. “That’s nonsense. Nobody ran my government. Just because he was known to be a Liberal the Tories used him as a target.”

The new Conservative Premier, Hugh John Flemming, a scholarlylooking lumberman, is probably not among Irving’s most ardent admirers. Before Irving bought the New Brunswick Railway Company, Flemming’s outfit, Flemming and Gibson Company, had cutting rights on part of its

• northern woodlands. Flemming claims his firm had an understanding with the old owners that in the event of sale they would have an option on the lands they were using. When Irving suddenly took over he canceled Flemming’s cutting rights.

Irving says today, “We never got our real share of business from the Liberal Government and we’re certainly getting less today.” He now disclaims any active role in politics. “I don’t think politics and business mix,” he says gravely. “New Brunswick is too small for politics.”

His chief outside interest today — not entirely divorced from his business —is the Chignecto Canal, a long-proposed waterway through the narrow neck of land separating the Bay of Fundy from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He feels the canal would cut transportation costs and enable the Maritimes to compete more favorably with central Canadian industries.

Because he is involved in so many things New Brunswickers just naturally suppose that Irving is involved in a lot more. Not long ago a Saint John man passed on the rumor to Frank

Brennan, Irving’s financial associate, that Irving had just bought the Post Office building.

Irving rarely takes time out for any kind of recreation. Occasionally he flies to his fishing lodge at the head of the Restigouche River when the silver salmon are leaping, or drops into Saint John’s Cliff Club to play poker on a Saturday night. A man who gambles with him has said, “K. C. plays everything close to the vest. The money doesn’t mean a thing to him but he hates to lose at anything.”

Mrs. Irving, who met her husband

when she was working in his father’s store in Buctouche, is a quiet pleasant woman whose outside interests centre around St. John-St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. She acts much as she would have if she had stayed in Buctouche and her husband had never made more than twenty-five hundred a year.

The Irvings have three sons, James, twenty-five, who is married and has one son; Arthur, twenty-two, and John, twenty-one. At Rothesay Collegiate, a private boys’ school near Saint John, they were nicknamed

“Oily,” “Gassy,” and “Greasy.” All are in business with their father and share his passion for work.

If Irving gives much money to charity and his friends insist he does —the public never hears a word about it. Once when a Saint John curling club was collecting money for a new rink a canvasser buttonholed Irving hoping for a fat donation. “Certainly,” said Irving. “Put me down for one share ($100) same as everybody else.” The conclusion drawn was that Irving didn’t want it noised abroad that he controlled the curling club, too. it