It has been easy to underestimate Big Jim Irving Jr. Born with a silver spoon, people say. Hopelessly immersed in operations, and lacking in vision. A hulking guy with the back-slapping style of a lumber salesman.
That dismissive assessment was proven wrong this week.
The award of a $25-billion combat-ship contract to his family’s Halifax Shipyard is a personal triumph for Mr. Irving, oldest of the fourth-generation heirs to Canada’s third-largest business fortune, which was forged by his legendary grandfather K.C. Irving, and by his father and uncles.
Many others played key roles in landing the federal contract, and the Irvings had 70 people working full time on the bid against rivals in B.C. and Quebec. But it was Mr. Irving who assembled the team, kept it energized and exhibited his trademark doggedness to pull it off.
It was, you might say, visionary.
Mr. Irving, 60, has heard the whispers about his head-down management style, and he doesn’t pay any mind. “All I know is we’ve got to make things run and make things grow,” he says.
Mr. Irving carries many of the traits of his grandfather K.C., says Scott McCain, whose own father and uncle created French fry and frozen food giant McCain Foods Ltd., another powerhouse built, like the Irving companies, in New Brunswick. “He’s got the Irving tenacity,” Mr. McCain says. “He has his grandfather’s single-mindedness of purpose.”
Vision is an admirable trait, Mr. McCain says, but it needs to be complemented by an ability to execute. “Jim wants to put the puck in the net,” he says.
The new deal entails the building of warships over a 30-year period that could see a doubling of the 1,000-strong work force at the Irvings’ shipyard, and could spin off an average of 8,500 Nova Scotia jobs yearly. It will spur investments in local skills that, Mr. Irving says, will create “the next generation of shipbuilders.”
It also means a lot to his 83-year-old father J.K. (James) Irving, who, he says, is the genuine ship builder in the family, dating back to the late 1950s and through the big federal frigate project of the 1980s-1990s. “He gets a great kick out of the business.”
Their family company, J.D. Irving Ltd., is at heart a forestry operation, founded in Bouctouche, N.B., in the 1880s by James Dergavel (J.D.) Irving. He built a sawmill business, which his son K.C. expanded and diversified, into an energy, wood products, retail, transport and shipbuilding empire based in Saint John. Canadian Business magazine recently estimated its value at $7-8-billion.
Today, K.C.’s son J.K. and grandsons Jim Jr. (also known as J.D.) and Robert run the core forestry business, which owns more than 830,000 hectares of land in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and is one of the biggest landowners in the state of Maine with another 500,000 hectares.
But it has suffered from forestry’s brutal cyclicality, just slightly eased by moving into value-added products like packaging, diapers and tissue. The assurance of a 30-year-stream of stable revenues is a boon to a business that fluctuates so wildly.
It also brings bragging rights inside the Irving family. The forestry side of the now divided Irving empire has leapfrogged in prominence ahead of the energy wing, led by Jim Jr.’s uncle Arthur, now 80. In the pecking order of the Irvings – where the oldest male holds sway – Jim Jr. reasserts his status as the central player of the fourth generation.
Mr. Irving says the roots of a successful company lie not just in the big wins, but in sustaining the business when times are bad. Even in the slow years for federal procurement, he says, the Irvings kept the shipyard working, often with their own building projects.
“You need motivated folks and you need a commitment – and commitment is not always there when times get tough,” he says. “These are long-term businesses and they are not always easy. There are cyclical parts and you have to get through them to be successful in the long term.”
Still, the contract is bound to stoke resentment in hometown Saint John, where the Irvings had their shipbuilding start in the late 1950s and where they closed the venerable shipyard in 2003 after a long decline. Mr. Irving says New Brunswickers in general will benefit from supply contracts to the Halifax project.
And he is not turning his back on Saint John. He is building a huge new house in the affluent suburb of Rothesay, that will far eclipse the elegant 6,100-square-foot mansion that has been the family home. The smaller house is on the market for $1.65-million. Its hectare of property backs on to the grounds of the new structure that to casual onlookers is hidden from view.
Rothesay real estate was far from his mind Wednesday, as Mr. Irving hosted a huge celebration in a tent on the Halifax Shipyard site. He was in his classically ebullient mood – jumping onto a dais and shouting for “all the guys in hard hats” to come closer for the announcement.
When the news was made official, sparking a roar in the tent, he threw his arms in the air like a victorious prizefighter, a comeback kid who should never be counted out.
With files from reporter Oliver Moore, Halifax