________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 32. . . .April 19, 2013


Twenty-first Century Irvings. Rev. ed.

Harvey Sawler.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2012.
233 pp., trade pbk., $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-55109-944-6.

Subject Headings:
J. D. Irving Limited.
Irving Oil Limited.
Irving family,
Industrialists-New Brunswick-Biography.
Capitalists and financiers-New Brunswick-Biography.
Family-owned business enterprises-Succession-New Brunswick.

Grades 12 and up / Ages 17 and up.

Review by Thomas F. Chambers.

** /4



But beyond his efforts in livestock, cheese, butter, and pork, Herbert was busily emerging as something far more dynamic than a successful and prize-winning farmer—he had made himself into what Glendenning describes as a land developer and the area’s “informal financial institution.” If lot number 3734 is the symbolic foundation of the future Irving holdings, then Herbert’s growth marks the symbolic turning point in the rags-to-riches yarn. He was the unofficial local bank at a time when there was no requirement for letters patent or for an act of the legislative assembly for a person to lend money. In fact, it was not until 1926 that Herbert’s grandson K. C. Irving received the family’s first official letters of patent from the government permitting him to loan money, or as Glendenning’s research says, “to guarantee the performance of contracts.”


Twenty-first Century Irvings is an unauthorized history of the Irving family of New Brunswick from the arrival of George, who came from Scotland in 1833, to the sixth generation of Irvings in 2007. It is very detailed. Some readers may find this frustrating, but the details are necessary to explain the family’s success. Sawler, the author, shows clearly that the Irvings are different from other people. They have become very wealthy. Much of this is because of hard work and business acumen, but a lot of it is due to the importance the family devotes to customers. Serving the customer has helped the family build a loyalty that is invaluable.

     The Irvings are of interest because they are one of Canada’s most successful business families, dominating the oil and forestry industries (and much else besides) in New Brunswick and much of Atlantic Canada. Anyone who has driven to the Maritimes, or the state of Maine, will have noticed the Irving name on the many Irving Oil gas stations which seem to be everywhere. The family businesses are private and the family quite secretive about its affairs. This secrecy and the success of the family have resulted in it being misunderstood and envied.

     The “Introduction: Myths and Truths” goes a long way to helping the reader understand this successful and mysterious family. It seems mysterious because its businesses are private, and many myths have been formed as a result. The success is due to what the author describes as the “Irving DNA”, an interesting assortment of traits that have helped the family be a powerful economic force for 150 years. These traits include hard work, patience, and attention to detail.

     Twenty-first Century Irvings has no index, teaching aids or illustrations. A useful family tree, beginning with George, is included. The book has 21 chapters of varying length. In a school context, it is only suitable for recreational reading.

     The lack of an index is a curious shortcoming, one which reduces the book’s readership value. How is one to refer to points made but not clearly remembered without one? For example, K. C. Irving, the central figure in the story, would likely require close to half a page in an index. It is difficult to assess his full impact, or that of other family members, on the family and its businesses without an index.

     Much of the Irving story in this book is based on the opinions of people who were interviewed by the author and who had some connection with Irving businesses or dealings with family members. Frequently quoted, these opinions are often little more than educated guesswork. One Irving, J. K., did allow the author to interview him for a day. Originally published in 2007, most of the material seems dated. The “Afterward” of three pages, written in 2012, does not give a fresh slant to the Irving story.

     Harvey Sawler, the author of Twenty-first Century Irvings, has written seven books including The Moosehead Story and Frank McKenna. He is also a tourism consultant. Because his major source for “Irving facts” comes from people who have had some affiliation with the Irvings, but little from the Irvings themselves, his conclusions may, or may not, be accurate. To be fair, there is no other way a book of this nature could be written.


Thomas F. Chambers, an author and retired college teacher, lives in North Bay, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.