BORN: Buctouche, New Brunswick • 14 March 1899
DIED: Saint John, New Brunswick • 13 December 1992
Two VERY DIFFERENT PEOPLE INHABIT THE LEGACY of New Brunswick’s K.C. Irving. The “good” Irving, ambitious but altruistic, was an adept businessman and a creator of thousands of jobs in his home province. The “evil” Irving bullied unions and competitors as he turned New Brunswick into his personal kingdom and its citizens into his subjects. Both Irvings were impossible to ignore.
Kenneth Colin Irving was born on the east coast ofNew Brunswick when the new century was just months away. His father’s forestry holdings ensured that the family was comfortably well off, but Irving early displayed a craving to build his own business.
He started selling cars, and, in a move that became the stuff of legend, began in 1924 to compete with the giant Imperial Oil to sell gasoline to a new generation of car owners. Irving Oil Limited rapidly became the departure point for a corporate empire unrivalled in size in Canada.
Irving’s success came from vertical integration. Initial profits were directed to the acquisition of more and more businesses that his companies relied on. An oil refinery would supply his service stations; ocean tankers would stock the refinery; a bus line would buy the gas from the stations.
It all had an elegant symmetry to it—until New Brunswickers woke up in the 1960s to find that almost every part of the provincial economy was controlled, if not owned, by K.C. Irving and his family.And that is precisely where the good Irving versus evil Irving debate began.
Good Irving was a committed New Brunswick resident who based his empire in Saint John and resisted the allure of more cosmopolitan addresses. He was loyal to his employees and a generous philanthropist. Good Irving lived a simple life. He neither smoked nor drank, never flaunted his money, and mostly invested it back into the New Brunswick economy.
At the same time, evil Irving was a ruthless capitalist.His companies either crushed or acquired most competitors. They showed an uncommon willingness to resort to the courts to remove obstacles to their expansion. They were pathologically anti-union.
Evil Irving systematically collected almost every major source of information in New Brunswick, including all five English-language daily newspapers. Good coverage was good business, he suggested. He could not understand why the Canadian government sought to restrict his control of the media in the early 1980s, though in the end the government backed down, unwilling to take on the Irving colossus.
Evil Irving was also obsessive about avoiding taxes. He escaped to Bermuda in 1971 to dodge Canadian taxes and succession duties, and even made his children’s inheritance conditional on their avoiding Canadian residency.Good or evil, Irving was an old-fashioned capitalist who ran New Brunswick like a game of Monopoly—but it was a game he always seemed to win.
When he died in 1992, Irving controlled nearly 300 different companies. He held major interests across the Maritimes and in the northeastern United States. He dominated dozens of industries—everything from oil to communications—in his home province.
His personal wealth was almost inconceivable: some estimates put it at $6 billion, which ranked him among the twenty richest people on the planet.But these numbers, if impressive, cannot begin to reveal the influence of this one man. Simply, K.C. Irving was more than the most important businessman on this list. For New Brunswickers in the second half of this century, Irving was, and remains, a way of life.