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'A steadfast champion of Atlantic Canada': Oil executive Arthur Irving dies at age 93

Irving's death comes as the company's Saint John refinery is undergoing a "strategic review" to determine its future.
5/14/2024
Arthur Irving Irving Oil

Arthur L. Irving, the second-born son of New Brunswick industrialist K.C. Irving, has died at the age of 93 after a life spent growing the oil business his father founded.

Irving Oil announced his death in a statement, saying he died Monday surrounded by his wife, Sandra, and daughter, Sarah.

Forbes Magazine listed Arthur Irving as being among the top 10 richest Canadians in 2023. At the time of his death, he had an estimated net worth of US$6.4 billion, which includes a Saint John, N.B., refinery that is Canada's largest, along with the Whitegate refinery in Ireland.

Born in 1930, Irving attended Nova Scotia's Acadia University before leaving to join Irving Oil in 1951, where he worked with his father and his two brothers.

"I had the choice to go on at Acadia or learn about business from the best teacher available anywhere—my father," he told author Donald Savoie in his 2020 book about Irving Oil. "I went with the best teacher."

Savoie wrote that Irving's first day on the job was a happy one: "He got a Ford, quickly slapped the Irving diamond on the door, and off he went. He was out to hustle business, meet existing customers, seek new ones, and beat the competition." He became president of the company in 1972 and was chairman emeritus when he died.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his condolences to Irving's family and friends in a statement Monday evening.

"Under his leadership, (Irving Oil) became one of Canada’s top employers and job creators – making Mr. Irving a symbol of Canadian entrepreneurship and success," Trudeau said.

Irving's death comes as the company's Saint John refinery is undergoing a "strategic review" to determine its future, as climate change is prompting a shift away from fossil fuels in many nations.

While his biographers have credited Irving with success in expanding the company, he also had a life marked by family difficulties, including a contentious 1980 divorce with his first wife and—more recently—his estrangement from his eldest son.

In his book, "Irving vs. Irving," published in 2014, journalist Jacques Poitras described a poignant scene from August 2013, when Irving stood at a Saint John news conference announcing that his company was officially launching a bid—which ultimately didn't succeed—to build a pipeline to carry crude oil from Alberta to the family's refinery.

Poitras noted that Kenneth, "his son and heir," was notably absent after a falling out led to his departure from the company in 2010. "Arthur, in his eighties, was surrounded by admirers, yet alone. His refinery loomed in the background ... but his family was torn asunder," Poitras wrote.

In the 1980s and '90s, Arthur Irving's business life and interests were tightly tied to his two brothers, J.K. and Jack, as they took primary responsibility for different segments of the interwoven business empire their father had created. The trucking firms ran on the companies' refined gasoline, the forestry and shipping interests used the Irvings' construction subsidiaries, and a chain of newspapers purchased the newsprint from a nearby factory.

Of the three brothers, Arthur was described by his father's biographers Douglas How and Ralph Costello as "thin and mercurial, the most abrasive against government and the most talkative." However, the biographers also noted his ability to turn on the charm and his capacity to act as the family's "super salesman," chasing down customers for the supertankers that docked at the company's Canaport terminal outside Saint John.

In late 2009, the three Irving brothers separated their business interests, with Arthur assuming control of the energy business and setting up a trust of his own— eportedly worth about $1 billion—with quarterly distributions going to himself and his children, along with provisions for grandchildren.

READ:  Arthur Irving no longer chairman of Irving Oil

During a court battle in 2012, the Bermuda court's chief justice commented that Kenneth had come to feel estranged from his family after being dropped from the company's executive ranks. Poitras described the fallout as a "bitter schism."

For the author Savoie, a public administration professor at Université de Moncton, Arthur Irving's single-mindedness was key to the survival of the company over the past five decades. He wrote that Irving guided the company to growth as other refineries faltered and laid off staff or closed around Atlantic Canada. "Rather than shutting down its refinery or laying off employees and contracting business, it expanded," he noted, referring to a $1.5-billion upgrade in 2000. "Irving Oil is substantially larger than it was when Arthur took it over in all aspects of the business, from refinery operations to sales, number of retail outlets, market share, and size."

Atlantic Canadians and New Englanders experienced this style at the Big Stop gas stations and stores, which Savoie described as "customer-centric." The author also said he believed that while the businesses in the Irving empire went in different directions, Arthur remained close with J.K. and with his younger brother, Jack—who died in 2010.

Savoie's book noted that the three boys were encouraged from a young age to be entrepreneurs, selling magazine subscriptions door to door and buying a dozen hens and selling eggs to the neighbours in Bouctouche, N.B. They grew their business to the point there were 150 chickens.

"In summer months, they were expected to work in the field and pull their weight like all the others — in short, no special treatment because they were the Irving boys."

In its statement, the company described Irving as "a steadfast champion of Atlantic Canada and its people" and one of a kind. "In this immense loss, we know there will never be another like him," it said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2024.

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax

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