HALIFAX — Debate about the succession plans for the Irving brothers have long swirled around the family’s massive network of companies, and with the death on Wednesday of John E. (Jack) Irving those questions continue to linger.
Leading Canadian businessman Wallace McCain, who fought with his late brother over the family’s frozen food empire, said transferring wealth is never easy in large family companies.
“It would be very difficult. … Where you have families, you have differences of opinion. It’s just human nature,” said McCain, who started his career working with the Irving brothers in New Brunswick.
But McCain believes the various Irving companies will remain stable over time.
“The Irvings are very smart people. I guarantee as far as employees are concerned, it will work out just fine. … Relax, relax, relax.”
The three brothers — Jack, Arthur and James K. Irving — inherited the oil refining, forestry, construction and media empire from their legendary father, K.C. Irving.
Canadian Business magazine ranks them as the second-wealthiest family in Canada.
Jack Irving, who was 78, oversaw the building and construction operations. His brother Arthur serves as chairman of Irving Oil while James is chairman and CEO of J.D. Irving Ltd.
Joel Levesque, a Saint John public relations executive who has consulted for the Irvings, said it’s not known what arrangements are in place for Jack’s son, John Irving, to take over — at least as far as the public is concerned.
“The succession issues, we just don’t really see it as Saint Johners,” he said. “We just hear rumours, but it’s just business as usual as far as anyone can tell.”
The succession questions date back to K.C. Irving’s death in 1993.
At the time, the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal reported that the family patriarch left a probate will in Bermuda that set up a 35-year trust to be administered by his widow, a New York lawyer and a Bermudian lawyer. The newspaper reported that the three brothers were allowed to participate in the trust if they wished.
When the trust was dissolved, the empire was to be divided among Irving’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as the trustees of the day saw fit.
However, in recent years the family declined to answer questions on how the division of assets had been formalized.
Media reports in 2007 suggested that a major reorganization was underway, and there was speculation that the hundreds of firms owned by the intensely private Irvings had been broken up into separate ownership.
John Irving started to take a larger role in the operations his father had overseen, such the OSCO construction group.
In 2008, business registration records showed that the names of J.K. Irving and his son J.D. Irving were dropped from the lists of directors of Osco Group Services Ltd., while Arthur Irving and his son Kenneth remained.
There appeared to be a growing alliance between the oil company and the construction firms, with J.D. Irving’s companies going their own way.
But the family declined to speak about what was occurring, other than to say that normal succession planning was underway.
Jonathan Franklin, a family friend and the former publisher of several Irving-owned newspapers, said he wasn’t sure if the various assets have been legally divided.
“They kind of operated as different silos. They worked very closely with Irving Oil, but I’m not quite sure about the corporate structure there,” said Franklin, who was asked to act as a spokesman for Jack Irving’s family on Wednesday.
Mary Keith, a spokeswoman for J.D. Irving Ltd., declined comment and a spokeswoman from the oil operations overseen by Arthur Irving did not return calls.
Paul Zed, a lawyer whose father was close to Jack, said that many of the difficulties over succession have been worked out as John has taken on a greater role.
“Jack’s son John has taken over the reins of numerous business interests his dad operated,” he said.
Like many, he remains uncertain over what the Irvings’ succession plans will mean to business in the province.
“There will be very little change,” he predicted.
But he also said, “nobody really knows.”