Why did the Howard Hughes of Canada exile himself to the tropics and leave the kids in charge?
“I am no longer residing in New Brunswick. My sons, J.
K. Irving, A. L. Irving and J. E. Irving, are carrying on the various businesses. As jar as anything else goes, I do not choose to discuss the matter further.”
— Kenneth Colin Irving, Nassau, January 18. 1972.
That’s typical of this modern Croesus — short, to the point and enigmatic. Until his departure, he held 10% of the land area of his native New Brunswick, employed one in every 12 of that province’s workers, was worth an estimated $600 million in shareholdings of his 100 companies — and he feels no obligation to explain himself to anyone. He is almost certainly Canada’s richest individual, one Maritimer who never felt the need of leaving — until now — and he made it all at home.
The obvious parallel is Howard Hughes; perhaps after one collects a certain amount of money and power, inscrutability becomes very attractive. But the comparison isn't entirely accurate. K. C. Irving is the very opposite of eccentric. He merely keeps himself to himself.
He's gone now, or says he is, and there’s no reason to think he's coming back. Everybody in New Brunswick, of course, has his own idea about KC’s reasons — Ottawa’s new tax laws, for example, and Premier Richard Hatfield’s succession duties, which would cut down the size of the empire Irving could pass on to his sons. (If he stayed in Canada, the taxes due to both governments on his death could come close to the amount of New' Brunswick’s entire annual budget.) But nobody knows for sure. Irving is deliberately, inherently mysterious, just as he always was, to the frustration of New Brunswick’s army of Irving-watchers.
The real story of K. C. Irving is not whether he was driven out by the threat of taxation; others have gone that way before. The real story is the saga of a well-meaning man grown so powerful that he could not distinguish between the public interest and his own.
He himself is a 19th-century plain man of simple tastes, ineffable courtesy, and a 20th-century computerized business mind. There is the legend and there is the man. And the man is somehow bigger than the legend.
“We’re just a couple of Kent County boys trying to do the best for our province,” Irving once told Louis J. Robichaud, the former New Brunswick premier This was not cant. Irving meant it, and Robichaud understood it. But to Irving, doing the best for the province meant doing it only his way. In Robichaud, who was born 10 miles away and 25 years later, K. C. Irving met for the first time a politician in power who just as stubbornly wanted it done his way; the people’s way, as he saw it.
I was born in New Brunswick, and worked there for a good part of my life; and, for a decade, I was an adviser to Premier Robichaud at a time when he and Irving were involved in a kind of total political and economic war. I’ve met K. C. Irving, interviewed him, seen him occasionally and talked to hundreds of people about him, and I’m convinced that the most important thing about Irving is not his money but what he represents: K. C. Irving is the last of the great feudal barons of Canada.
K. C. Irving. Age: 73. Born: Buctouche, NB. Major holdings: Irving Oil (a holding and operating oil and gas company, with some 3,000 retail outlets); Irving Steamships Ltd. and Newfoundland Tankers Ltd.; Les Pétroles Inc. and Irving Oil Inc., oil distributors in Quebec; Irving Realties Ltd., a real estate holding company based in Quebec; General Realty Co., North End Service Stations Ltd., Marquette Oil Co.; Irving Refining Ltd., jointly held by Irving Oil and Standard Oil Co. of California, with one $50-million, 50,000 barrel - per - day refinery at Saint John and another of equal size announced for Quebec City; Eastern Oil and Service Stations Ltd., another enterprise Irving holds jointly with Standard; Saint John Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. (which has just received a $47 - million federal order); Ocean Steel and Construction Ltd., Thorne’s Hardware Ltd., Saint John; Irving Pulp and Paper Ltd., a joint operation with Kimberley-Clark; Irving Marine Division, a line of oceangoing tugs; all five English language daily newspapers in New’ Brunswick, one radio station, one television station. 7 otal: Some $600 million. — Source: New York Times, June 10, 1971; The Financial Post, April 20, 1968.
Until the 1930s much of New Brunswick operated on a form of feudalism. Most / continued on page 81 Canadians think of New Brunswick as poor; rather it is rich in resources, underdeveloped industrially, cursed with recurring unemployment and chronically hard up. It is not an agricultural province; it is and has always been cash-crop country, wood, fish and potatoes. But the biggest cash crop is timber. The lumber barons and the merchant princes, often the same people, once controlled entire districts. They ran the general stores, controlled supplies, held the mortgages, dominated local politics.
These merchant families held immense power and handed their fiefs down from generation to generation. Such families as the Millers at Campbellton, the Piries at Grand Falls, the Kents at Bathurst, the O’Learys at Richibucto, the Taits at Shediac and the McLeans of Charlotte . . . they once “owned” New Brunswick and did much as they pleased. A benevolent feudalism, but feudalism nonetheless. Most of these merchant families have seen their power dispersed. But not the Irvings. K. C. Irving started in the 1920s, when the process of decay was already attacking the dynasties, but he became the last and most splendid of their line. He is, in a sense, the supreme Canadian anachronism of this century, a ferociously rich, strong, agile mandarin.
He started financially almost from scratch. His father was a Buctouche merchant, patrician, well-to-do, but not wealthy. There were some timber concessions in the family, but nothing obvious to start an empire with. After World War I, when Irving came back from the Royal Flying Corps, he took a job in his father’s store, and left that to begin selling Ford Model Ts. He soon realized, however, that the demand for oil and gas was a lot steadier than the demand for the machines that used them, and got hold of an Imperial Oil agency for Kent County.
In 1924, he had a disagreement with Imperial — Imperial still won’t talk about it, and neither, of course, will Irving — and, with a $2,000 bank loan, set up his own oil retailing business. He had a Model T modified into a truck, and drove around the Buctouche area with drums of oil, selling to the fishing, farming and woods people.
And from there he just expanded, inexorably: he built his own stations, started a construction company to put them up, went into the transportation business, bought into the timber business in the Depression. The expansion of the empire took on a momentum, a kind of mathematical progression; his veneer plants mushroomed during World War II building Mosquito scout planes, and by 1945 he had enough money to buy out the old New Brunswick Railway Company, which didn't have much rolling stock but did have deeds to a cool one million acres of timber stands in the heart of the province.
It could not, certainly, be done today. Maybe it could not have been done at any other time. But the combination of the Depression, the war and Irving’s simple gambler’s nerve gave the expansion a kind of awesome inevitability.
All the more impressive, perhaps, since Irving is not one of your modern multimillionaires who get rich by buying up 5% or 109f of a going concern. When Irving owns something, he owns it, outright; he has gone into joint projects with other companies only recently, and then only with a clear understanding of who runs what.
“Why don't you offer shares in your group to the public, Mr. Irving?”
“If we went public we’d have to make economic decisions based on a computer. We’ve put industries into Saint John and New Brunswick following policies not necessarily based on choosing the most economical location.
For example, we built the refinery in Saint John and lost about a million dollars in transportation costs the first year . . .”
“If you knew you’d lose so much, why did you build the refinery in Saint John in the first place?”
“Because I live in Saint John.”
— Basil Jackson, The Financial Post, April 20, 1968.
I am certain that Irving identifies his own interests with the public interest, that, in fact, he considers them identical. Everything he has done, in his opinion, has been for the good of New Brunswick. Most tycoons will tell you that what’s good for them is good for the public, but Irving is not cynical about it. He’s not in fact a Bull Moose sort of tycoon at all. He is an intensely civilized man, soft-spoken, tall, with strong features, personally graceful. I remember noticing, when I first saw him, that he dressed rather like a landed Irish horse breeder going to the Curragh in checked tweeds. He has the quality referred to in politicians as “charisma” and in others as “presence.” He is charming and almost painfully courteous. (When I saw Irving in later years, it was mostly with Louis Robichaud. Robichaud is short and personally bristly; it was oddly fascinating to watch the tall, impressive Irving looming above him but addressing him always as “Mr. Premier.”) Of course, this gentleness of manner was not a matter of compulsion, but of choice. When it suited him, Irving could be hard and inflexible as oak.
The morning after Louis Robichaud was elected premier in 1960, K. C. Irving, arriving in a float plane, was the second visitor the premierelect welcomed to his home in Richibucto. Irving had been a major financial and moral supporter of the Liberal Party in that election. It looked like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It lasted less than a year. When Robichaud wanted to allow Rothesay Paper Corporation to use some of the harbor lands in Saint John which the government had expropriated for expansion of Irving’s dockyards, there were harsh meetings in the premier’s office. Rothesay was owned by a Belgian group; Irving didn't relish the competition, and said so. It became so heated at one meeting that Robichaud told Irving, “If you want to run this province why don’t you present yourself to the people?” After this, the men’s relations were never again really placid.
Irving was a one-directional man. E. P. Taylor has his string of horses, and the Bronfmans pursue culture and the Expos in Montreal; Irving had only his work, and he worked constantly. He had — it is still difficult to think of his presence in the past tense — a complicated radiocommunications hookup in his office in the Golden Ball Building in downtown Saint John, and at any time he could reach any part of his operations. He was constantly in motion: Halifax, New York, Montreal and back to Saint John in one day. And all this with refined efficiency, without fuss. I saw him once at the airport in Saint John. He made his own reservations for Montreal, went directly to a phone booth, talked business until flight time. We were on the same flight, and I wound up in the seat behind him. The airplane was crowded, but perhaps he had bought two tickets, for he spread his papers out on the seat next to him and worked straight through until we landed. No chitchat. No wasted time.
He was personally puritanical. New Brunswick, like most other places with any kick to them, has its own share of boozers, hail-fellows, and glad-handers in high places; but Irving did not smoke and did not drink, almost as though these habits were irrelevant to his business apd therefore entirely without attraction. He showed no intolerance of others who had such habits. His concept of “pleasure” must have been exactly the same as his concept of “work.” Irving had a splendid fishing lodge on the superb Restigouche River, next to the Ristigouche Salmon Club, which has as its only members 21 multimillionaires; but when Irving’s guests went off to the river to fish, KC sat on the front porch shuffling papers.
It is this quality of constant attention that was the most striking thing about K. C. Irving. He did things, and he did them in person, and he did them in private. And only a very few people, almost all New Brunswickers, were allowed in on the operations. One of them, Lou Ritchie, an Irving adviser who later went on to the New Brunswick Supreme Court, was part of the pattern when Irving was building up his network of filling stations. When a site was under consideration, the two of them would sometimes go out after dark and look around, sizing the place up — Ritchie holding one end of the spring tape measure, Irving stepping off the land, taking the measurements, calculating the odds.
I have various mental pictures of Irving, always doing something absolutely in character. I ran across him once in the Nassau Beach Hotel in the Bahamas; he and his party were leaving for the airport, and he was standing with his private pilot beside a large mound of luggage, personally counting suitcases, one by one, checking, rechecking, supervising. This move was to go exactly as all Irving operations go. Smoothly. No slipups. No chitchat. No wasted time.
But the inner spring that drove all this was hidden. Nobody knew what made K. C. Irving what he was. He was impenetrable and inexplicable, like a primary force of nature. ■
FIRST OF TWO PARTS
J. E. Belliveau, now a senior Toronto advertising executive, is a native of New Brunswick, where he worked first for the Moncton Transcript. He was a public relations policy adviser to former New Brunswick Premier Louis Robichaud between 1960 and 1970.
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