A native of Maine who built a successful fish and food processing business in Bar Harbor and went on to become CEO of General Mills, one of the world’s largest food companies, E. Robert “Bob” Kinney died at the age of 96 on May 2 in Arizona.
Although remembered as an entrepreneur, savvy businessman and a generous philanthropist, Kinney also was a man of humble beginnings. Born in Burnham, Maine, in April 1917, Kinney lived on a farm by the Sebasticook River. When he was 5, his father bought a livery stable in Pittsfield, where he sold horses to farmers.
Kinney grew up in Pittsfield, helping his family with their horses, as well as haying the fields and plowing the roads during the winter. He attended Maine Central Institute, graduating in 1935. A good student, Kinney ranked third in his class and was particularly proud of making MCI’s football team, playing quarterback his junior and senior years.
Though Kinney’s family did not have the money to send him to college, he received a scholarship to attend Bates College in Lewiston. Kinney majored in history and minored in economics, qualifying for Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious academic honor society. Kinney left Bates in 1939, the first in his family to graduate from college.
Kinney began working on the Maine coast for the National Youth Administration, a Depression-era program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While working on the coast, he found that lobstermen were throwing away crabs that crawled into their lobster traps. Kinney brought some of the crabs to the University of Maine research department, where he learned that the meat from the crabs could be canned in hermetically sealed containers, giving them a long shelf life. He then offered the lobstermen 1 cent per crab, and after finding no interest from local canneries, began processing the crabmeat in his apartment at night after work.
With a $300 loan from the Merrill Trust Co. in Bangor, Kinney began the North Atlantic Packing Co.
Kinney moved the company to Bar Harbor and soon was a significant employer in the town with more than 300 employees. The business grew and during World War II, the company canned orange marmalade and peach jam for the military in addition to processing fish. Fourteen years after founding the company, it had grown to $2 million in sales.
In the late 1950s, Kinney joined Gorton’s Seafood Co. as a vice president, stepping into the role of CEO two years later. While at Gorton’s, he successfully turned fish into a convenience food by packaging and selling it as frozen sticks. The company became the first to receive the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seal of approval on its frozen seafood products. In addition, Gorton’s acquired many companies across the United States and internationally, including competitors such as Fulham Bros.’ Four Fishermen brand products.
In 1968, after General Mills acquired Gorton’s, Kinney, as Gorton’s president and CEO, went to General Mills to lead the company’s consumer food operations. He rose quickly through the company ranks, taking positions as chief financial officer, president and chief operating officer along the way before becoming CEO in 1977.
During his tenure at General Mills, company sales grew from $1 billion to $5 billion, the number of employees jumped from 26,000 to 71,000, and General Mills became the world’s largest toymaker. In addition, General Mills partnered with the U.S. government on public service campaigns fighting drug use and improving environmental awareness.
Kinney retired from General Mills on Jan. 1, 1982. The next day, he went to work for IDS Mutual Funds based in Minneapolis as president of the board of directors, where he remained for five years before retiring a second time. Throughout his life, Kinney also was a director with companies including Honeywell, Deluxe Check, Unum, St. Paul Cos., Sun Oil, Idexx of Portland, Hannaford, Fisher Price, Uno Pizza and Putnam Mutual Funds.
In addition to being an entrepreneur and businessman, Kinney also was a dedicated adviser and philanthropist. And though he hadn’t lived year-round in Maine for years, Kinney remained a loyal, generous benefactor to many institutions in the state. He supported The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor and sold the land and buildings that later became the College of the Atlantic. Indeed, his major interest outside of business was education.
Kinney was a member of the Bates College board of trustees for 27 years, 17 of them as chairman of the board. He established endowments for a history professorship and scholarships, was chairman of the national campaign that built Ladd library, and provided major support for Pettengill Hall and the Olin Arts Center.
In 1987, Kinney received the honorary degree of doctor of laws from Bates College and, in 2008, was awarded the college’s highest honor, the Benjamin Elijah Mays Medal.
Kinney also served on MCI’s board of trustees for several years. A science laboratory in MCI’s Chuck and Helen Cianchette Math & Science Center and the conference room in the Trustee Memorial Student Center bear the name of the Kinney family. In recognition of his support and guidance, Kinney was a charter member of MCI’s Hall of Fame and received the MCI Alumni Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2005.
Though he hadn’t lived year-round in Maine for years, Kinney remained a loyal, generous benefactor to many institutions in the state. In addition, he served as an inspirational Maine success story, musing in his memoirs, “How did I get from a farmhouse in Burnham, Maine, to here?”
Kinney is survived by his wife, Margaret (Margee) Kinney of Wayzata, Minn.; daughter Jeanie Small of Danville, Calif.; and daughter Isabella Keating of Long Lake, Minn. Services will be held at 4 p.m. Friday, May 17, at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Beane is director of communications at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield.