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Irving Oil announces more leadership changes as president steps down

Ian Whitcomb has served as the president of Irving Oil for eight and a half years. (Irving Oil - image credit)
Ian Whitcomb has served as the president of Irving Oil for eight and a half years. (Irving Oil - image credit)

Irving Oil president Ian Whitcomb is resigning from the post as the private company, one of New Brunswick's largest employers, continues a strategic review of its future.

Whitcomb "made a personal decision to step down," after being in the role for more than eight years, the Saint John-based company announced on its website Monday.

The resignation comes on the heels of other major leadership changes at Irving Oil, which has about 4,000 employees.

As of last fall, Arthur Irving, 93, is no longer chair of the board of directors, but chair emeritus. His daughter, Sarah Irving, who was executive vice-president and widely seen as his heir apparent, is no longer part of the leadership team.

The strategic review of the company, announced last June, is continuing and "outcomes associated with it are not yet clear," Maureen Kempston-Darkes, lead director of Irving Oil's board of directors, said in a statement.

A "series of options" related to the company's future are being evaluated, including a new ownership structure, a full or partial sale, or a change in the portfolio of assets and how they are operated, the company has said.

Irving Oil's property in Saint John, as seen from the air.
Irving Oil's property in Saint John, as seen from the air.

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)

Since no decisions about Whitcomb's replacement have been made, Jeff Matthews, chief financial officer of Irving Oil, "will take the leadership role in this process," Kempston-Darkes said.

Matthews, who joined Irving Oil more than 29 years ago, "has a deep knowledge of our company and the evolving needs of our customers," she said.

The rest of the senior leadership team remains unchanged, according to the release.

Could signal pending sale

Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates, an industry consulting firm in Houston, said there could be more behind Whitcomb's decision.

"It might be that they're nearing the finish line on the strategic review process, and that may be leading to the sale of the company to a much bigger oil industry player," he said.

"And perhaps Ian Whitcomb is reading between the lines himself, deciding that his eight and a half years at Irving Oil was enough and perhaps there's something else that he would like to do."

I think the writing is on the wall and there's going to be an ownership change, or at least a joint-venture structure. - Tom Kloza, industry analyst

Tom Kloza, founder of Oil Price Information Service, agrees.

"I think the writing is on the wall and there's going to be an ownership change, or at least a joint-venture structure," he said.

When a company announces a strategic review — whether it's a refiner, or a producer, or a marketer —  "in at least three-quarters of the cases … usually that's corporate speak for, 'We're looking to sell the company or to cash in with some sort of an event,'" according to Kloza.

Premier Blaine Higgs, a former Irving Oil executive, has previously suggested that the federal carbon tax and clean fuel standards were among the reasons the family was exploring selling all or part of the company.

Company spokesperson Katherine d'Entremont could not immediately be reached for comment.

Will stay on until June 9

Whatever Whitcomb's reasons for stepping down, Lipow said he must be leaving on good terms, as Irving Oil said he will continue to serve as president until June 9.

"I am grateful for Ian's leadership of Irving Oil over the past eight and a half years," Arthur Irving said in a statement.

Whitcomb helped "lead the company through a significant period of growth," he said, wishing him "the very best in the future."

Arthur Irving, 93, is now chairman emeritus of Irving Oil, according to the company's website.
Arthur Irving, 93, is now chairman emeritus of Irving Oil, according to the company's website.

Arthur Irving, 93, is now chairman emeritus of Irving Oil, according to the company's website, and 'continues to maintain a respected advisory role for the board and its activities.' (Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada)

In the company-issued statement, Whitcomb said he is "very proud of our team and what we have accomplished together."

He is also grateful for the opportunity and mentorship, he added.

As president, Whitcomb has been responsible for the day-to-day management of Irving Oil and the relationship with the board, guiding the company's strategy and keeping it focused on its goals, according to the website.

Former CFO joins board

Earlier this month, Irving Oil announced to employees that Jon McKenzie was rejoining the company as a board member.

McKenzie, the president and CEO of Cenovus Energy, based in Calgary, previously served as the chief financial officer and chief commercial officer for Irving Oil, according to the internal Feb. 6 memo, obtained by CBC News.

"John brings important industry and company-specific knowledge to our business at a time when the business is facing important questions related to its future, but is also equally focused on strong performance," Arthur Irving said in the memo.

McKenzie has more than 30 years of finance and operations experience in the Canadian oil and gas industry, it says.

At Irving Oil, he was responsible for all supply, trading and commercial aspects of the company, including co-ordinating business development projects involving pipelines, rail and terminal operations.

"I welcome the opportunity to continue to contribute to the success of Irving Oil," McKenzie said in the memo.