Irving Oil’s home city of Saint John (not to be confused with St John’s, Newfoundland) lies on the southern coast of the small Canadian province of New Brunswick.
Saint John often plays second fiddle to the provincial capital of Fredericton, and it has its own distinctive character, climate and attitude.
It is also one of the most Irish cities in North America. One of Saint John’s first bishops was Corkman Thomas Connolly.
But the Irvings didn’t become Canada’s third richest family by letting sentimentality affect their decisions, especially when it comes to buying an oil refinery that lost €263 million in 2014.
The Irving business empire took off under K C Irving after World War I. Today, most of the operations of the Irving group of companies are split between JD Irving Ltd and Irving Oil.
The two companies are now run separately, and each is owned by one of KC’s two surviving sons JK and Arthur. It’s believed the billionaire brothers rarely communicate.
Subdivisions of the companies include firms involved in forestry, paper, transportation, construction, ship-building, real estate, newspapers, oil refining and petrol stations.
They employ a strategy of “vertical integration”. Irving diesel fuels Irving trucks which haul Irving wood to Irving paper mills. After all, why should anyone else get a cut of the profits?
The Irvings polarise opinion in New Brunswick. You would do well to find someone in the province who doesn’t know an Irving employee, so there is a huge loyalty towards a family that puts the province on the map, and food on the table.
On the flip side, the Irvings are seen by some as having too much influence and power. Thy have a near-monopoly ownership of English language newspapers in the province.
They are also adept at leveraging their ability to create jobs, to get the best deal possible on any transaction. In 2005, JD Irving Ltd struck a 21-year deal with the government-owned power utility company NB Power to supply JD Irving Ltd with synthetic gypsum for a new plasterboard factory in Saint John.
Gypsum is byproduct at NB Power’s oil-burning power plant near Saint John; oil supplied by, you guessed it, Irving Oil.
In 2009, NB Power began to reduce production at the inefficient power plant. Since then, it has paid at least €8.4m in shortfall penalties and contract renegotiation fees to JD Irving.
Feud or no feud, the Irving family profits either way.
Irving Oil has stated that the jobs at Whitegate are safe, but should the refinery continue to lose money, it’s hard to imagine that the Irvings won’t make changes.