Billionaire businessman Arthur Irving dead at 93

Arthur Irving has died at the age of 93. Irving was the middle son of K.C. Irving, the industrialist who built a single gas station, sawmill and general store into a family-controlled industrial conglomerate. (CBC - image credit)
Arthur Irving has died at the age of 93. Irving was the middle son of K.C. Irving, the industrialist who built a single gas station, sawmill and general store into a family-controlled industrial conglomerate. (CBC - image credit)

Arthur Irving, the hard-charging New Brunswick billionaire who ran Canada's largest oil refinery, has died at the age of 93.

For decades, Arthur Irving ran Irving Oil, including its Saint John refinery. He became famous for his obsession with customer service, especially his unannounced visits to check the cleanliness of Irving gas station washrooms.

Irving died on Monday surrounded by his wife and daughter, the company said in a statement.

Irving was the middle son of K.C. Irving, the industrialist who built a single gas station, sawmill and general store into a family-controlled industrial conglomerate, making him and his three sons among Canada's wealthiest entrepreneurs.

In a rare 1998 interview with CBC New Brunswick, Arthur Irving articulated the energy and drive that was his trademark.

CBC
CBC

"We want our employees to be proud of us, we want to be proud of them and we want to keep going down the road and making this part of the country a better place to live," he said.

Jabbing the air for emphasis, he added: "That's our drive, every day. Every day. Every day!"

The Arthur Irving Family Trust became sole owner of Irving Oil in 2018 when it bought out a one-third stake in the company owned by the children of Arthur's late younger brother Jack.

Forbes Magazine estimated Arthur Irving's wealth at $6.4 billion US, as of May 6, and ranked him as the eighth richest person in Canada in 2023.

WATCH | The life of Arthur Irving:

He is survived by his second wife, Sandra, his children Jennifer, Kenneth, Arthur, Emily and Sarah, and his older brother J.K. Irving, 96. His younger brother Jack died in 2010.

During his 1980 divorce from his first wife, Joan Carlisle Irving, Arthur described his tight bond with his father and two brothers.

"When anybody takes on an Irving, they are going to take on all four of us, okay?" he said, according to a court transcript.

Jack Irving's son John issued a statement paying tribute to his uncle.

"I join with my family and all our employees in expressing our deepest condolences to his wife, Sandra, and his children, and their families," he said in a statement.

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon said in a social media post that Irving left a permanent mark on the city's landscape.

"His legacy in Saint John is immeasurable, and his contributions will forever be felt," she said.

Uncertain time

Arthur's death comes at a time of great uncertainty for Irving Oil, which employs 4,000 people and processes 320,000 barrels of crude oil a day at its refinery.

Last year Irving Oil shocked the province and the energy sector when it announced a "strategic review" that it said could lead to the full or partial sale of the business.

A few months later, Arthur Irving left his role as chair of the company, becoming chair emeritus.

His daughter Sarah — who had been the only one of his children still working at Irving Oil and widely seen as his heir apparent — left her position of executive vice-president at the same time.

The lack of any Irving family member on the senior leadership team added to the rumours and speculation about the company's future as a privately-held, family-owned business.

The Saint John refinery is also New Brunswick's largest emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases while public policy is trying to drive a transition to other energy sources.

"We want to be part of the solution," Irving told author Donald Savoie in a 2020 book, and the company has been exploring decarbonization projects.

Born on July 14, 1930, Arthur played hockey and rugby at Rothesay Collegiate, a private school outside Saint John, and was known for his smooth-talking charm.

CBC
CBC

He attended Acadia University but did not graduate and joined the family business, overseeing Irving Oil.

"He could mesmerize anyone and made a terrific salesman," his first wife Joan once said.

"Art's a super-salesman," his older brother, J.K. Irving, told CBC in 1998.

He also saw himself as a conservationist, enjoying long canoe trips in Canada's north and supporting Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands preservation organization, where he eventually became national president.

U.S. expansion

The 1988 Canada-U.S. free trade agreement paved the way for Arthur to oversee a major Irving Oil expansion into the U.S., starting in Maine.

"The richest market in the world is in the northeastern seaboard of the United States. That is the natural way for us to go," Arthur told biographer John DeMont around that time.

Today 80 per cent of Irving Oil's refined products are exported to the U.S.

In May 1994, Arthur stared down the union representing refinery workers when they walked off the job in what would turn into a strike lasting more than two years.

The company won an injunction to limit picketing and managers kept the refinery running.

In August 1996 the union voted to accept a contract that included concessions on seniority, and that allowed the company to fire 37 workers including the union president, a clear victory for the company.

In 2005 Arthur named his son Kenneth as CEO of Irving Oil. But Kenneth left abruptly in 2010 and later revealed he suffered a mental health breakdown at the same time his relationship with his father fell apart.

He went to court in Bermuda to challenge his father's plan for a new, billion-dollar trust to be established in the offshore tax haven.

Father-son legal battle

The three sons of K.C. Irving had begun negotiating the carving up of the conglomerate in 2007 to get ahead of new federal legislation that would tax income from offshore trusts.

A lawyer acting for Arthur called it "probably the most protracted and expensive trust rearrangement in legal history."

As part of the agreement to split the Irving empire, Arthur and his family gained two-thirds ownership of Irving Oil through their Bermuda-based trust.

But Kenneth opposed how his father wanted to structure the trust, which led to a legal battle and to the two men becoming estranged.

"It unfortunately is a long-standing pattern of negotiating with my father. Unless he knows that I have the resolve to go the whole way, I'll be stonewalled," Kenneth testified in a Bermuda court.

In 2013 Arthur helped promote the proposed Energy East pipeline that would have brought Alberta crude across six provinces to Saint John for export from a terminal that would have been co-owned by Irving Oil.

The project was cancelled in 2017.

Irving Oil acquired an oil refinery in Ireland in 2016 and a chain of gas stations in the country in 2019.