The last of KC’s boys dies, but not without leaving a legacy

James Kenneth (JK) Irving and his brothers Arthur and Jack were raised the same way and cut from the same cloth. Like their father, the legendary New Brunswick business giant K.C. Irving, they got up early, shied away from public attention, and often showed up unannounced to inspect the family operations in energy, forestry, shipbuilding, trucking, and newspapers.

JK was the first-born of the Irving boys and the last to die, on June 21 at the age of 96. His younger brother Arthur passed away in May at the age of 93, Jack, the youngest of the boys, died in 2010 at the age of 78. For decades, the iconic Irving boys brought remarkable stability and steady growth to the businesses their father founded from the single service station he started operating a century ago in Buctouche, NB.

KC wouldn’t have had it any other way. By the early 1960s, when the boys were still in their 30s, the family patriarch had carved out parts of his empire for his sons to run under his very vigilante guidance.  Jack was to manage the real estate, construction and newspaper sectors. Arthur took charge of the Irving network of gasoline stations and the Saint John oil refinery, the largest in Canada.

JK took control of the wood products and forestry businesses. As a young man, he put on his boots to work at Irving sawmills and paper mills. In later life, wearing his trademark straw fedora, JK was said to be happiest back in the woods – way back, if possible. His avuncular smile and easy manner, like the old Fords he liked to drive, belied a steely intelligence and competitive drive. Even in his older years, JK kept a close eye of the condition of logging roads and preferred to see for himself how well the company’s forests were being managed. His companies have planted a billion trees since 1957 – the Irving forests were farmed sustainably to keep the paper mill in Saint John operating.

The CrowsNest expects successive generations of Irvings will build on the legacies of KC and his trio of sons. Conventional wisdom holds that business empires decline under third and fourth generation ownership. In this region, though, a different outcome is happily evident. Many powerful business families have thrived through successive generations, including the Shaws and the Sobeys in Nova Scotia, the McCains and the Irvings in New Brunswick, and the Penneys in Newfoundland and Labrador.  True, there will never be a trio of brothers quite like the Irving boys, but the traditions and values they represent will live on.