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Kenneth Irving has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his position as chief executive officer of Fort Reliance. ((CBC))

Kenneth Irving's sudden leave as CEO from Saint John-based Fort Reliance is creating uncertainty over the company's future direction.

CBC News reported on Tuesday that Irving has taken a leave of absence for "personal reasons" as the chief executive officer of Fort Reliance, the parent company of Irving Oil Ltd.

Arthur Irving, Kenneth's father, confirmed the CEO's indefinite leave of absence in an internal staff memo.

Gordon Dalzell, a clean-air activist in Saint John, said Kenneth Irving's departure from the head of the company's day-to-day operations is concerning.

"He certainly was a hands-on manager or director there in terms of the refinery. He certainly leaves I would say a serious gap in their management structure if he's stepping away from the operation," Dalzell said.

Other industry watchers are less concerned about what impact Kenneth Irving's leave will have on one of New Brunswick's largest companies.

Tim Curry, president of the Atlantica Centre for Energy, said he doesn't believe the company will take a different direction without Irving at the helm.

"I would not expect to see the performance of the business materially affected one way or the other. I think that they have a history of hiring good managers," Curry said.

"There's some there now and I would expect to see them continue as a pretty strong competitor."

Irving Oil is listed as a member of the Atlantica Centre for Energy on the industry group's website.

The news of Irving's leave of absence comes as the Irving Oil refinery was set to mark its 50th anniversary. The company had planned to celebrate the anniversary on Tuesday but postponed those plans until the fall.

Kenneth Irving is in his late 40s and is a married father of four.

Company officials have declined to comment on why he has stepped aside.

Arthur Irving back

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Fort Reliance, the parent company of Irving Oil, is one of New Brunswick's largest corporations. ((CBC))

Arthur Irving, who is in his late 70s, said in his staff memo that he will work closely with the board of directors in overseeing the business on an interim basis.

And the executive team will continue their current responsibilities with the day-to-day operations, focusing on the company's "core business strategies and plans."

Arthur Irving, one of industrialist K.C. Irving's three sons, was president of Irving Oil until 2000 when he turned over the energy corporation to his son, Kenneth.

The Saint John-based energy company has had a series of setbacks in the last year.

The most high-profile was the decision by BP and Irving Oil to cancel plans to build a second oil refinery, with an estimated value of $8 billion, in Saint John last July.

The refinery project was expected to create 5,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs at its peak.

Fort Reliance announced in February that it was shelving plans to build a new $30-million world headquarters at Long Wharf.

More recently, Irving Oil ended its tidal power research project in the Bay of Fundy.

The company also withdrew its application for environmental approval to build a biodiesel refinery in June.