Thursday, July 22, 2010


Baron Black of Crossharbour has been the focus of much of the Canadian media's riveted attention this week, following his release from the Coleman medium security federal facility near Ocala, Florida.

One thing is "for sure" about Conrad Moffat Black: Few Canadians (if any) do not have an opinion of one type or another about the former media mogul. Where Conrad Black is concerned - There is quite simply no middle ground of opinion or views about him: It's either love / hate; feast / famine; or white / black - No pun intended.

Perhaps in New Brunswick; people's attention may have been drawn elsewhere over a much more locally notable family's tribulations. A family, not unlike Conrad Black's, not only at the control of a media empire, but of so many more elements for - about - and in - such a small province, that they wield a multi-billion dollar empire and belong near the top of the list of richest people on the continent.

The death of John E. Irving at age 78 in Saint John has raised numerous questions about succession plans for the Irving Family business which is intricately woven into just about every facet of life in New Brunswick; from broadcasting and newspapers; vast forestry resources; and an international energy company which includes one of North America's largest oil refineries. The Irvings are Canada's second wealthiest family.

Jack Irving was responsible for the family's construction, engineering and steel fabricating companies; and the media empire which includes all of New Brunswick's English daily newspapers and several radio stations. He and his older brothers Kenneth and Arthur, affectionately known as Gassy, Greasy and Oily when I was growing-up in New Brunswick; inherited the Irving empire from their father, K.C. Irving. He brilliantly divided-up the business into three equal but extremely integrated parts amongst his sons before his death.

John Irving's death on Wednesday overshadowed information made public 48 hours earlier but; given the family's tight grip on media in New Brunswick, which received little attention in the press: A week ago, Jack Irving's nephew stepped away indefinitely "for personal reasons" as CEO of "Fort Reliance Inc." the parent company of Irving Oil. The energy companies (oil, gas etc) were "willed" to Kenneth's dad Arthur when the family patriarch (K.C.) died in Bermuda in 1992. Though company officials declined comment about the departure...the Saint-John based conglomerate has had a series of set-backs in the last 12 months.

These have included a high profile decision by Irving Oil and B.P. Oil (Yes, the very same B.P.) to cancel plans to build an $8-Billion second refinery in Saint John; aborted plans to build a $30-Million "Irving" world headquarters near the Port of Saint John; termination of an Irving sponsored tidal power research project in the Bay of Fundy; and a recent decision to withdraw requests for environmental approvals to build a bio diesel refinery in New Brunswick. What's it all mean?

What is clear is that before his death in 1992, K.C. Irving was both adamant and brilliant in ensuring the survival and growth of the companies which had made him one of the leading industrialists of the 20th Century. In this brave new world of the 21st Century growing numbers of third and fourth generation family members may not share the Irving passion in the same fashion.

Ironically it's all probably "deja vu" all over again for another iconic New Brunswick family: Three years after K.C. Irving's death; in 1995 the McCain family empire was rocked ultimately by an un-resolvable dispute over succession. Harrison and Wallace McCain; were both working for Irving in 1957, when they acquired their father's potato growing and exporting business. Wallace split in 1995 to acquire Maple Leaf Foods after he and Harrison quarrelled over who's son would take-over McCain's.

Doubtless all of New Brunswick will want to comfort the Irving family and will be respectful of this very private family's moment of grief. But, in a small province where essentially two large family run companies have been the pillars of the economy everyone will be anxiously hoping that transition to the next generation(s) will remain without major effect on the tens of thousands of jobs they provide.

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