Obituary: E. Robert Kinney, former General Mills CEO

  • Article by: MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2013 - 7:08 PM

A native New Englander who made his name in the fish business, E. Robert Kinney became General Mills’ CEO in the late 1970s and presided over the company’s fateful move into yogurt, taking control of the then-minor Yoplait brand. General Mills would eventually transform it into a huge seller.

Kinney, of Wayzata, died May 2 at age 96 in Arizona, where he had a second home.

He joined General Mills in 1968 and by 1977 had become CEO and chairman, retiring in 1981. During his tenure at the top, General Mills’ annual sales climbed from $2.9 billion to $4.9 billion, while its employment ranks grew from 62,000 to 71,000.

“Bob’s key characteristic was sort of a New England integrity — he was a man of enormous integrity,” said H. Brewster Atwater Jr., who served as General Mills’ second-in-command under Kinney and succeeded him. “He was from Maine and enormously proud of it,” fond of quoting aphorisms from his home state, Atwater said.

Kinney graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and went to graduate school with plans to become a history teacher. But he realized that the job market for teachers didn’t justify the money he was borrowing for post-grad studies, so he started his own business.

Kinney had noticed lobstermen on the Maine coast throwing away crabs that had wandered into their traps. He offered them a penny per crab, and with a $300 loan, Kinney launched a canning company. Over the years, it built up $2 million in sales. In the 1950s, Kinney also worked as a consultant to Gorton’s, a then-struggling Massachusetts seafood firm.

He eventually became Gorton’s CEO, ushering the firm into fish sticks and other frozen seafood, turning the company around in the process. General Mills bought Gorton’s in 1968, and Kinney came on board to head General Mills’ consumer food operations. (General Mills sold Gorton’s in 1995.)

Kinney became General Mills’ chief financial officer in 1969 and was named president in 1973, a position he held until becoming CEO.

General Mills, now focused on packaged food, was a conglomerate during Kinney’s time. Indeed, it was the world’s largest toymaker, home to Parker Brothers, Kenner and the Play-Doh brand. But the first steps toward narrowing General Mills’ focus started under Kinney with the 1979 sale of the firm’s specialty chemical business. The toy business was divested in 1985.

By then, General Mills was ensconced in yogurt. In 1977 the company bought the U.S. licensing rights to Yoplait, a brand created by French dairy farmers. Yogurt was then a nascent market, and U.S. rights to make Yoplait had been owned by a Michigan cottage cheese maker and another small-time food firm.

“The idea was this was a growth business,” Atwater said. So General Mills put its substantial product development and marketing muscle behind Yoplait, turning it into a dominant U.S. yogurt brand. Today, Yoplait is one of the company’s biggest U.S. businesses with around $1.4 billion in annual sales.

Kinney’s main interest beyond business was education: He was a trustee of Bates College for 27 years, serving as its board chairman for almost two decades. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and daughters Jeanie Small of Danville, Calif., and Isabella Keating of Long Lake.

Services will be held at 4 p.m. Friday at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

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