The man behind Saint John-based JDI, one of the richest and most robust private enterprises on the East Coast of Canada, is a surprisingly cordial fellow. He’s also an avowed industrial environmentalist. Meet a CEO of sustainability, innovation and employment generation in resource-bound New Brunswick: James (Jim) Irving—Natural Resources Magazine’s Industry Person of the Year.
He can remember being guided into the woods by his father and grandfather to inhale deeply of the scent of spruce and pine and larch and cedar. At times, his pater familial (the legendary New Brunswick industrialist Kenneth Colin Irving) would quiz him about the extent of his knowledge on the subject of silviculture. Jim, as a child, would rarely disappoint his dad’s father. After all, ignorance of the family enterprise was not, and never was, an option.
Today, James (Jim) Irving—co-CEO of JDI with his brother Robert—sits atop a sprawling empire of trees that extends throughout New Brunswick, into Maine and across the isthmus that leads to Nova Scotia. From his Saint John office, he is both reflective and determined.
“We have been in business for 130 years. It’s a business, but it’s also like a family,” says the enthusiastic 67-year-old scion of extraordinary adventurers in entrepreneurship. As for the woods, he adds, “It was a way of life. My father and grandfather always enjoyed doing it right and making things better. We have hired a lot of very good people over the decades. Growing trees takes a long time. Excellence has always been the key. We knew that the dividends would take a long time to come. And we have taken that point seriously. Somebody else might have gone to the golf course or the racetrack.”
According to one of JDI’s many web pages, “Continual reforestation is at the root of our business, and the heart of our value chain. At J.D. Irving, Limited, we manage and continuously re-invest in every part of our vertically integrated forestry business—from seed to shelf. Vertical integration starts with the land, wood supply, the tree nurseries, silviculture, company contractor logging, sawmills, pulp, paper, and tissue mills. …We take great pride in sustainably managing this value chain, exceeding the expectations of our stakeholders and customers in every facet of our business.”
The braggadocio is clear, as is the pride. But others also laude the organization’s efforts to support sustainable resource development. Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of the national Sustainable Forestry Initiative, commends JDI for investing $1.5 million annually in forest research. “This investment continues to guide best practices on the ground. On average, 12 graduate students and assistants are engaged in research every year on lands owned or managed by JDI. Much of this research is conducted in collaboration with universities, and it seeks to build knowledge that JDI and other forest managers can integrate into adaptive forest management plans that account for species at risk, water quality, wildlife and climate change.”
Moreover, she reminds us that, “JDI also supports projects funded in part by SFI Conservation Grants. A research partnership with Bird Studies Canada received SFI grant funding to facilitate the monitoring of endangered and threatened bird species, including the piping plover and Bicknell’s thrush, on JDI and adjacent government lands.”
Indeed, she says, “JDI has collaborated in 68 forest research projects, the highest number of any SFI Program Participant. Project highlights include JDI’s award-winning Unique Areas Program, which has grown from 29 sites in the 1980s to more than 1,300 today.”
The Unique Areas Program, which focuses on “protecting unique elements in working forests”, has four objectives: preserving rare and uncommon species and landscape features; monitoring important indicator species; establishing a database of species and natural features; and engaging the public and stakeholders.
During her interview with Natural Resources Magazine, Abusow had this to say about Irving himself: “Jim has always been there for us. He is so dedicated to sustainable forestry practices.” So much so that he brought several members of the JDI Woodlands division with him to Ottawa to receive the SFI Conservation Leadership Award (for 2017)—in recognition of the team’s efforts and dedication.
As far as he’s willing to take credit, Irving will only speak circumspectly. “Efficiency is an issue for any company. It’s a global thing. We have to be extremely efficient. Of course, we have a lot of fun with that. How can we be better? But we get exposed to a lot of good ideas; new ways to use new technology to be efficient. It’s all linked. Today, governments are doing less research in some aspects. We don’t mind being leaders. We don’t mind being accountable. We must step up. We’re not trying to slide by.”
The result, perhaps, is a private enterprise that continues to employ more than 15,000 individuals along the East Coast of Canada and the United States when times are good, when times are bad and when times could be better. Innovation and true grit appear to be the key to that longevity.
That will stand him in good stead with U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade negotiators as they try to restrict (or shut out) Canadian lumber from the American market. Lumber is one of New Brunswick’s biggest exports south of the border; JDI is, inarguably, the East Coast’s largest player. “We’ve been on the case for 30 years. The facts are clearly in our favour here. The facts should bear out. These are big, complicated issues, but we’ll get out of it. So we just have stick with it. I’ve been with the business all my life. We have lots of interesting things going on. We can compete from here. This is not just business; it’s life.”
What’s clear is that this man in the autumn of his life will continue to inhale deeply of the scent of spruce and pine and larch and cedar in the lands he cherishes. This is, after all, what his grandfather and father taught him in the slim moments between real wealth and authentic joy.