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E. Robert Kinney, 96; brought fish sticks to popularity

From left, Gorton’s executives Havey H. Bundy Jr. and Paul M. Jacobs with E. Robert Kinney during a fishing boat inspection off Gloucester in 1965.

Globe File

From left, Gorton’s executives Havey H. Bundy Jr. and Paul M. Jacobs with E. Robert Kinney during a fishing boat inspection off Gloucester in 1965.

PHOENIX — E. Robert ­Kinney, 96, a former chief executive of General Mills who earlier was instrumental in popularizing fish sticks at Gorton’s of Gloucester, has died.

General Mills said Mr. Kinney died last week in Arizona.

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He 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 success of the fish sticks business prompted General Mills Inc. to acquire the company, based in Gloucester, Mass., in 1968.

Mr. 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 Mr. Kinney as General Mills’ chief executive and praised him as a great leader of a high-performing company.

When General Mills acquired Gorton’s, Mr. Kinney led its consumer food operations and eventually rose through the ranks to become chief executive. General Mills said its sales under Mr. Kinney’s leadership grew from $1 billion to $5 billion and saw its number of employees grow from 26,000 to 71,000.

General Mills sold Gorton’s in 1995, but the brand remains a popular food choice thanks to Mr. Kinney’s innovation.

‘‘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 US,’’ said Paul Coz, vice president of human resources for Gorton’s Seafoods.

Mr. Kinney grew up in Pittsfield, Maine, graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, and started a canning business called North Atlantic Packing Company that grew out of his experience in seeing lobster fishermen discarding crabs. He offered 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,’’ says Ken Powell, the company’s current chief executive. ‘‘Not only was he successful in business, but also, more importantly, he was both respected and loved by colleagues and peers.’’

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