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handout

  • Title: Thanks for the Business: K.C. Irving, Arthur Irving, and the Story of Irving Oil
  • Author: Donald Savoie
  • Genre: Business
  • Publisher: Nimbus
  • Pages: 317

On Sunday, Aug. 16, California’s Death Valley marked what might be, pending validation, the highest temperature ever recorded on the planet Earth – 54.4 degrees Celsius. Around the world, average temperatures are up. Last year was the second-hottest on record. It displaced 2016.

Donald Savoie’s latest book, Thanks for the Business: K.C. Irving, Arthur Irving, and the Story of Irving Oil, devotes seven of its 317 pages to climate change – a thin assessment of the impact of oil and gas products and the companies that produce and sell them accompanied. Indeed, Savoie (who writes that he is a friend of Arthur Irving) spends about as much time on how the Irving family business will navigate and survive the decline of oil and gas (and the rise of electric cars) as he does on the existential threat of climate change itself.

The allocation of attention may be excused, in part, by Savoie’s intention to write a book that takes the Irving family as an opportunity to explore the topic of business development, corporate management and economic development in Atlantic Canada. The result? Thanks for the Business is made up of rambling, complimentary tales led by the story of the entrepreneurial Irvings: from the early scions arriving in Canada from Scotland, making their way to Bouctouche, N.B., to the founding of Irving Oil in 1924 by K.C. and the transfer of its leadership to Arthur, and beyond to the trials and triumphs of the company today.

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For stretches, the book reads like a parable, a didactic tale of hard work, ingenuity and pluck – and the slightest bit of fortune – as the regional David takes on a series of national and global Goliaths from Eaton’s to Imperial Oil to CNR to the federal government itself. At times, the account ascends towards hagiography, casting the Irvings, especially K.C. and Arthur, as unpretentious, decent, obsessed with customer service and, above all, concerned with and committed to the well-being of Atlantic Canada, especially New Brunswick.

The Irving brothers, from left, John, James and Arthur, in 1987.

SCOTT PERRY/The Canadian Press

Across 11 chapters, Savoie casts the company and family in such favourable, humble terms – they give to charity, they run a foundation, they keep their employees safe and so forth – that the minimum we ought to expect from those who have prospered reads as Herculean. The Irving commitment to developing their province and region is notable, especially considering Savoie’s plausible account of a federal government more concerned with central Canada than its Atlantic neighbour. But at the same time, he casts vertical integration (adopted as an approach by K.C. around the time of the Depression as “more one of necessity than of a carefully thought management theory or strategy”), which is a threat to competition and consumer rights, as merely an astute and fitting practice for Irving Oil. He also gives a light hand to tax minimization – perfectly legal – deeming it necessary, especially given that the company’s competitors are doing the same. Savoie admits he is not “a tax expert by any standard,” adding “ … I do not have the knowledge to assess if Irving Oil is paying what it ought to pay in taxes.” A lot, here, of course, depends on one’s understanding of the word “ought.”

The book is at its best when tracing the roots of the Irvings (a genuinely interesting story) and connecting their concern for their home province and region to the considerations of comparative economic development. Why did K.C. build the Irving refinery, the largest in Canada, in Saint John? “Because I live there,” he said.

The question of “Who else would do it?” (that is, develop the region) is central to Thanks for the Business. Not the federal government, Savoie concludes. He points to decades of federal snubs of Atlantic Canada – and mounts a compelling case. During the period of the Second World War, Ottawa was funding Crown corporations that delivered an outside benefit to “vote-rich” Ontario and Quebec. Later, it turned its back on the region by spurning the building of the Chignecto Canal and Energy East pipeline. Today, it is “slowly but surely … pulling back on most policy fronts,” and “slowly turning off the spending tap in New Brunswick when it comes to promoting economic development.” Fair points all around, although one is left wondering just where such money is to come from. No doubt, in part, from corporate taxes.

Toward the middle of the book Savoie tells us “K.C. looked, and Arthur Irving now looks, at Irving Oil as a family firm that has to compete against the world’s oil giants. Irving Oil remains firmly planted in Saint John, New Brunswick, always pulling against gravity or against powerful economic and political power from away.” Here we encounter a running theme – one that undermines the effort at times: The book moves beyond a charming tale of a committed family and their love of Atlantic Canada into the realm of the ecstatic, missing the depths of critique and the context of the family fortune and force that would help us understand not only how power is exerted upon them, but how they exert power within the region, the country and the world.

For instance, we are often reminded in these pages that, since its founding, Irving Oil has been held privately by the family – all the better to do good business and keep control. What we are not reminded of is the stunning concentration of wealth and power that underwrites the Irvings – in 2020, Forbes reported Arthur Irving’s net worth at US$3.3-billion; in 2018, Canadian Business pegged the Irving family wealth at C$7.38-billion.

Thanks for the business indeed.

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Savoie fails to give us an equal measure of the Irvings and their place in the Canadian and global business firmament. Perhaps that is an oversight, a blind spot or the product of writing three books in one: the story of the Irvings themselves, an account of the Irving business and its practices, and an assessment of the past, present and future of economic development in Atlantic Canada. Whatever the cause, the failure is significant and leaves the reader wishing the book was either 100 pages longer – or 100 pages shorter.

Other notable books about Canadian business

Harrison McCain: Single-Minded Purpose by Donald Savoie (MQUP 2013)

Before writing the book on Irving Oil and the family behind the company, Savoie took up the subject of another Maritime powerhouse: Harrison McCain (who was mentored by K.C. Irving) and his family. The volume is reminiscent of Savoie’s work on the Irvings, except with more potatoes.

Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Canada’s Media Mogul by Peter C. Newman (HarperCollins, 2010)

For decades, Peter C. Newman chronicled the lives and times of those who shaped Canada – for better or for worse. This volume on Asper is focused more on the man himself, but the sweeping story of politics, business, and empire told in its pages is itself a family tale of a sort.

Freewheeling: The Feuds, Broods and Outrageous Fortunes of the Billes Family and Canada’s Favorite Company by Ian Brown (HarperCollins 1989)

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You might not think it to look at the company, but Canadian Tire’s history is more dramatic – or melodramatic – than most. It’s been over 30 years since Brown’s book was released, but tales of feuds and broods are always in style.

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