PHOENIX — E. Robert Kinney, a former chief executive of General Mills who earlier in his career was instrumental in popularizing fish sticks, has died. He was 96.
A statement from General Mills said Kinney died last week in Arizona.
Kinney was a food company executive for most of his career, including a successful stint in leading Gorton’s of Gloucester — a brand that became a mainstay in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store for generations. The company’s success in the fish stick business prompted General Mills Inc. to acquire Gorton’s in 1968.
Kinney served as president and chairman of General Mills from 1977 to 1981, leading the company during a time of rapid growth that included acquisition of licensing rights to Yoplait yogurt.
“Bob Kinney was a remarkable human being, a great guy with rock-ribbed New England integrity,” said H. Brewster “Bruce” Atwater Jr., who succeeded Kinney as General Mills’ CEO and praised him as a great leader of a high-performing company.
When General Mills acquired Gorton’s, Kinney joined the company and led its consumer food operations and eventually rose through the ranks to become CEO. General Mills, based in Minneapolis, said its sales under Kinney’s leadership grew from $1 billion to $5 billion, and the number of employees grew from 26,000 to 71,000.
General Mills sold Gorton’s in 1995, but the brand remains a popular food choice thanks to Kinney’s innovation.
“During his tenure with Gorton’s he was credited with leading the company through a period of significant growth. While I wouldn’t say he invented the fish stick, he certainly led Gorton’s during a period of time when the fish stick became an established convenience food for consumers in the U.S.,” said Paul Coz, vice president of human resources Gorton’s Seafoods.
Kinney grew up in Pittsfield, Maine, graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and started a canning business called North Atlantic Packing Co. that grew out of his experience seeing lobster fishermen discarding crabs. He offered the fishermen a penny for each crab and started a canning business.
“Bob Kinney was a transformational leader for General Mills who had a tremendous impact on our company,” said Ken Powell, the company’s current chairman and CEO. “Not only was he successful in business, but also, more importantly, he was both respected and loved by colleagues and peers.”