Parents might not recognize E. Robert Kinney by name, but they owe him a debt of gratitude for popularizing what might be the only kind of fish their kids will eat.
The former General Mills CEO, who passed away May 2 at the age of 96, has done more to head off dinner-table standoffs with picky eaters than any parenting expert ever could.
As head of what was then called Gorton-Pew Fisheries, Kinney in the 1950s helped transform a challenging protein into a crunchy vehicle for tartar sauce kids could eat with their fingers.
The fish stick was, and remains, the ultimate starter seafood.
“He did a lot of things to build the fish business and make it profitable,” said Bruce Atwater, former chairman and CEO of General Mills.
Before hungry American kids turned fish sticks into a moneymaker, Gorton’s had a business in Peru where it caught and dried anchovies for animal feed — a long way off, literally and figuratively, from the supermarket freezer case.
“It was an important part of Gorton’s business [because] it enabled them to put cash back into the retail business,” Atwater said. Initially, fish sticks were “a teeny part” of Gorton’s business. “But Bob had the strategic sense to make money off anchovies,” Atwater said. “That was the kind of strategic thinker Bob was.”
When General Mills bought Gorton’s in 1968, fish sticks contributed what Atwater called a “meaningful, but not huge” proportion of the company’s profits. General Mills was looking for a way into the frozen foods market at the time. Atwater, who led the acquisition team, said he was impressed by Kinney’s personality as well as what became Gorton’s signature product.
“He’s just a prototypical, state of Maine, rock-ribbed-integrity type of guy,” Atwater said. “Just a man of tremendous integrity and, obviously, imagination and financial sense.”
Kinney rose through the ranks at General Mills, becoming president and COO in 1973, then CEO in 1977. When he retired at the end of 1981, General Mills was a $5 billion dollar business, up from $1 billion when he arrived.
General Mills sold Gorton’s to Unilever in 1995, which sold it and another fish business to a Japanese seafood conglomerate in 2001 for $175 million.