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Arthur Irving no longer chair of Irving Oil, fuels more speculation about N.B. company’s future

Arthur Irving is no longer in his leadership role at Irving Oil, and his daughter, Sarah Irving, is no longer part of the leadership team, according to the company’s website, fuelling further speculation about the future of one of New Brunswick’s largest employers.

Irving, 93, who was chair of the Saint John-based board of directors, is now listed as chairman emeritus, while Sarah Irving, who was executive vice-president and widely seen as his heir apparent, is no longer listed.

Company spokesperson Katherine d’Entremont did not respond to requests by email and phone on Tuesday and Wednesday for comments.

The leadership changes come in the midst of a strategic review that’s evaluating “a series of options” related to the company’s future, including “a full or partial sale.”

“No decisions have been made about where this strategic review may lead,” Arthur Irving, Sarah Irving and Irving Oil president Ian Whitcomb, said in a statement last June, when the strategic review was announced.

A portrait of a woman wearing a black blazer and black top, with her hair pulled back, standing at a podium, speaking into a microphone.
Sarah Irving, the former executive vice-president of Irving Oil, is pictured here at Port Days in 2017, when she told attendees her grandfather ‘had a vision’ for the company when he started it, and all he hoped it would be. ‘He was thinking big, but his roots and his team would always be right here at home,’ she said. (CBC)

“Considerations will be given to a new ownership structure, a full or partial sale, or a change in the portfolio of our assets and how we operate them,” they said.

With 4,000 employees, the privately held company is one of the most powerful in the province.

‘Transition time’

Premier Blaine Higgs, a former Irving Oil executive, who worked for the company for more than 30 years, told CBC Wednesday he is surprised and saddened by news of the leadership changes.

“I think [it] shows it’s a transition time for the business,” he said.

“I guess they’re making big decisions about their future.”

In June, Higgs suggested that the federal carbon tax and clean fuel standards were one of the reasons the family was looking at selling. On Wednesday, he pointed again to the federal climate policies, saying they “have obviously changed the direction in many ways.”

An aerial view of the Irving Oil property feature large barrels with the letters spelling Irving.
Irving Oil’s Saint John refinery is Canada’s largest, processing about 320,000 barrels a day and producing gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel, propane and asphalt. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Founded in 1924 by Arthur’s father, K.C. Irving, Irving Oil operates Canada’s largest refinery in Saint John, which processes about 320,000 barrels a day and is New Brunswick’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The company has “more than 900 fuelling locations and a network of distribution terminals spanning Eastern Canada and New England,” according to its website.

It also operates Ireland’s only refinery, Whitegate, which processes up to 75,000 barrels a day.

Forbes Magazine listed Arthur Irving as the eighth richest person in Canada in 2023, with an estimated net worth of $5.7 billion. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index lists him as sixth richest, with a total net worth of about $8 billion.

Could be a ‘precursor’

Industry consultant Andrew Lipow said the leadership changes could signal more changes to come.

“It could be a precursor that there’s going to be a potential change in the ownership of the company, or that … the board of directors has decided it’s time for new leadership to be installed, and that’s people who are outside of the original founding family, said Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, based in Houston.

“I think that the family may have decided that they’d just simply like to cash out of that investment,” he said, also citing the more stringent federal environmental regulations, aimed at lowering Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions over time.

“Irving may be looking at making a significant investment in order to comply with those regulations, and the existing ownership may have decided that perhaps the sale to a third party with additional financing being available is the way to go to maintain and enhance their business over the next several decades.”

The Saint John refinery is valued at about $2 billion.

It’s difficult to predict who a potential buyer would be, said Lipow.

“It could be a Canadian oil producer. It could be private equity that decides to come in and make an investment. It could be another international oil major looking for a refining asset in which to monetize their oil production.”

A potential sale would not result in a halting of the refinery’s operations, according to Lipow. It is a “major supplier” of gasoline and diesel fuel into Eastern Canada as well as into New England, he said.

Any changes at Irving Oil, however, would be felt throughout the region, Lipow said.

That could include, for example, a rebranding of the gas stations located on “many corners,” he said.

‘Respected advisory role’

As the chairman emeritus of Irving Oil, Arthur Irving “continues to maintain a respected advisory role for the Board and its activities,” the company’s website says.

It previously said he was responsible as chairman “for establishing the vision for the company and providing overall guidance to [the] senior leadership team.”

Sarah Irving was previously described as the executive vice-president, who “grew up in the family business, understanding well the importance of great employees and loyal customers in achieving success.”

Sarah Irving isn’t often heard from in public, but in a speech six years ago at Port Days, she spoke with pride about the company and its legacy.

“When my grandfather K.C. Irving founded Irving Oil in 1924, he had a vision for our company,” she said.

“Here, in Saint John, he saw many opportunities of a place with unparalleled natural advantages. And together with his sons Jim, Arthur and Jack, and the many dedicated employees of Irving Oil, they would work hard to make this vision a reality, in building businesses that would span the globe, but always remain true to home.”

The rest of the leadership team at Irving Oil remains unchanged, according to the website. 

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