The bald, bony six-foot tycoon cast his long shadow over New Brunswick for most of the 20th century. And even though Kenneth Colin (K. C.) Irving’s industrial empire grew to be one of the world’s richest, he always ran it as though he were the proprietor of a country store in the village of Buctouche, N.B., where he was born in 1899. The billionaire’s power and influence touched almost every aspect of life in the province, where the Irving family owns more than 300 companies with a combined workforce of more than 25,000. Irving’s burning ambition and hard-driving business style brought him into conflict with ordinary citizens as well as multinational oil companies, union leaders, provincial premiers and the federal government. But despite his pervasive influence, the Saint John industrialist was an intensely private man who rarely ventured into the public limelight. And when he died at Saint John Regional Hospital after a brief illness last week, at 93, he remained as enigmatic as ever.
All the same, the business empire that K. C. Irving leaves behind ensures that his name will live on. The Irving fortune is estimated at as much as $5.8 billion, one of the largest in the world. The empire reaches across the Atlantic provinces and Quebec into New England, and includes the largest shipyard and biggest oil refinery in Canada, about 3,000 service stations, more than three million acres of prime timberland and all four English-language daily newspapers in New Brunswick. He controlled pulp mills, trucking lines, a fleet of supertankers, steel-fabrication companies and hardware stores. Moreover, Irving forever improved his home province, where one in 12 adults now work for one of his companies.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his last one—smoothly passing his life’s work on to his three children, his tough and capable sons, James, 63, Arthur, 61, and Jack, 60, who are now grooming their own offspring to run the family business. Irving came from dour, hardworking Scots Presbyterian stock. His father, James Irving, was a successful merchant in the tiny oyster-farming town of Buctouche, located on New Brunswick’s Acadian east coast. Irving inherited his father’s feel for business. He turned his first profit at 12 by butchering and selling a flock of ducks that he
had raised in his backyard. His subsequent business ventures included selling Ford cars and Imperial Oil Co. gasoline. But, in 1924, Imperial withdrew his distributor’s licence after he demanded concessions from the oilcompany giant. Undaunted, Irving borrowed $2,000 from a bank and used it to buy a battered storage tank and a railway tank car’s load of gasoline. The oil-and-gas distribution
business he then started became the foundation for his fortune.
In the 1940s, Irving expanded his operations in the then-sagging forestry industry, adding bankrupt pulp-and-paper mills to his growing web of companies and purchasing a million acres of woodland from a bankrupt railroad. Later, he took over a moribund Saint John shipyard, which he resuscitated. In the late 1950s, in partnership with San Franciscobased oil giant Standard Oil of California, he built a $50-million refinery in Saint John.
Even after his empire became a multibilliondollar conglomerate, he remained a hands-on owner. From his office in Saint John’s Golden Ball Building, Irving pored over corporate balance sheets, personally signed almost all
cheques issued by his corporations and deployed his employees by shortwave radio. He spent thousands of hours each year in his private aircraft touring his holdings. In his prime, he reputedly could rhyme off the latest month’s output from any one of his service stations.
His tenacity and capacity for work were legendary. An associate recalled seeing him at Montreal’s Dorval Airport at one point in the 1950s carrying on conversations on three telephones simultaneously. In 1951, Irving’s private airplane burst into flames on takeoff from Saint John. He emerged from the wreckage with singed hair and promptly returned to the office and put in a 12-hour day. One friend, New Brunswick native and, later, British press baron Lord Beaverbrook, once asked the tightlipped industrialist what he did for fun. Replied Irving: “I work.”
Indeed, he did not smoke or drink, had no hobbies outside of work and lived simply in a comfortable white wooden house from which he could watch his tankers enter Saint John harbor. On the rare occasions when he attended public functions, he was shy and unfailingly polite. But he was tough in his business dealings. Irving once hurled his briefcase in anger during negotiations with officials from Standard Oil. On an earlier occasion, he threw off his coat and challenged striking unionists to a fistfight, although none took up his challenge.
Irving could also be vindictive. In the mid-1960s, New Brunswick premier Louis Robichaud, a boyhood friend, tried to abolish long-standing municipal tax concessions that Irving considered important to his success. As a result, Irving helped finance an unsuccessful attempt by the Conservative opposition to topple the Liberal premier. Another setback, although temporary, came in 1974, when the New Brunswick Supreme Court con§ victed the Irvings of monopolistic z practices as a result of the family’s I control of the province's English mes dia. The family appealed the decision - and it was subsequently reversed.
In 1972, Irving retired to his comfortable home near the sandy beaches of Bermuda to protect his family from any possible succession duties. There, he received few visitors and declined almost all requests for interviews. From then on, his three sons officially ran the empire but, until recently, they still consulted their father on most major decisions. And in New Brunswick, his aura remained omnipresent. When Irving made his regular visits home, he stayed in a 13th-storey penthouse known as the Bridge, which his sons had built for him over the family corporate headquarters in Saint John. From there, Irving looked down upon the empire he spent a lifetime shaping and the province that he irrevocably altered.
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.