Gorton's History

88 Roger Street
Gloucester, Massachusetts 01930

Telephone: (508) 283-3000
Fax: (508) 281-8295

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Unilever United States, Inc.
Incorporated: 1906 as Gorton-Pew Fisheries Co.
Employees: 850
Sales: $400 million
SICs: 2092 Fresh Frozen Packaged Fish & Seafoods

Company History:

A company with roots as old as the fishing industry itself, Gorton's, a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever United States, Inc., is a perennial leader in the seafood industry. Gorton's, which at one time hauled fish over the sides of its own ships and cured them on board, has been a pioneer in the frozen convenience seafood industry. It has remained a leader in the frozen fish market in the mid-1990s.

One of the earliest settlements in New England, Gloucester is the cradle of America's fishing industry. Long before the official birthdate of Gorton's, its parent companies were building their own reputations. John Pew & Company was the oldest fish packer in the city, established in 1849. Slade Gorton & Company, founded in 1868, was the first to package salt-dried fish in barrels. Both establishments sailed the Atlantic with company-owned schooners, pulling in cod and mackerel and salt-curing them on board. Gorton also dealt in pickled fish.

Gorton's became a registered trademark in 1875. Business was good enough for Slade Gorton that by 1889 he'd expanded to two buildings and 40 employees. Gorton's cod became the first nationally advertised fish; its billboards lined railways and roads across the continent. Fish was not a common staple of the American diet in those days, but Gorton's emphasized its innovative preparation of its product. Billed as "Absolutely Boneless Codfish" in 1901, the fish--which sold for nine cents a pound--was dried, salted, wrapped, and packed. After the fish was purchased, it needed to be soaked before preparing. It was only the first of many industry innovations for the company.

In 1906 Slade Gorton and John Pew merged their businesses with Reed & Gamage and David B. Smith & Company, owner of the largest fleet of vessels of any port on the Atlantic seaboard at that time. It was a marriage of Gloucester's top fishing businesses. The company that was created, Gorton-Pew Fisheries Company, is considered Gorton's predecessor.

Soon, Gorton's codfish cakes were a household item. While the rest of the world was becoming mechanized by steam-powered engines and automated production lines, the fishing industry continued to operate as it had in years past. Fish were still caught in hand-made nets, dried in the open air, and filleted by hand. It was labor-intensive work.

By 1912 Gorton's was offering boneless herring and smoked halibut, as well as Gorton's Cod Liver Oil Cough Candy. Shortly after World War I, however, the company shipped an ill-fated load of fish to Italy. The government had changed hands by the time the boat docked. The fish were taken, but no payment was made. Gorton-Pew went into bankruptcy as a result of the confiscation and several other company problems. According to a judge's statements at a hearing on the company's solvency in 1922, there had been some gross mismanagement as well. Gorton's owed various banks more than $1.3 million.

The company was reorganized in 1923 by a Boston lawyer named William Putnam, who went on to become Gorton's president. Putnam steered the company toward refrigeration, the key to the industry's future. The frozen food revolution impacted Gorton's more than any other historical event. The company recognized the opportunities that refrigeration offered early on, entering the fish-freezing business in the early 1930s. In fact, the company purchased the Gloucester Cold Storage and Warehouse Company in 1929, an indication that the company was looking ahead even at that early date.

World War II brought an increase in demand for fish products for those in the armed services, but it also brought government restrictions on the use of tin. The ultimate industry boost came from the meat shortage that was in place during the war. The shortage forced consumers to pursue alternative food choices, and fish producers were a primary beneficiary.

In 1944 Gorton's introduced the first frozen fish steak, a forerunner of what has become a company staple. Five years later, Gorton-Pew made national headlines when it made the first refrigerator trailer truck shipment of frozen fish across the continent, from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to San Francisco, California. The trip took eight days.

Until the mid-1900s, fish had little appeal to Americans, especially to those further inland from both coasts. Fish's main advantage over meat products was its low price. The health benefits associated with fish had not yet been discovered. More homes tried fish during the war's meat shortage, but it wasn't until seafood merged with the era of super convenience that it became a household essential. Gorton's Fried and Frozen Codfish, the first modern convenience frozen seafood, was introduced in 1952 and became a huge hit with housewives.

Shortly before that time, E. Robert Kinney's company, North Atlantic Packing, had been tapped by Gorton's for a joint enterprise--canned sardines. Kinney became a director of Gorton's in 1953, where he dealt with company problems in Canada. Gorton's net sales reached eight figures for the first time in 1955 on the strength of a 27 percent increase over the prior year. A $1 million modern seafood processing plant was opened in 1956 in Gloucester. A year later, the company changed its name to Gorton's of Gloucester. At that time, the company's product lines included main courses; fried and frozen specialties; frozen portion-controlled fish for institutional use; canned fish; and the company's first staple--salted and pickled fish.

In the latter part of the 1950s, the volume of fish that Gorton's was able to sell exceeded the supply available from domestic fishermen. Gorton's used foreign sources of fish for the first time during this period. Kinney became company president in 1958 and ushered the company through a period of major acquisitions and corporate growth.

Gorton's made a whirlwind of purchases during the 1960s. The company started with Florida Frozen Foods, a purchase that brought a Miami-based shrimp processing plant and other brands of breaded shrimp to Gorton's. Another food service market notable, Blue Water Seafoods of Cleveland, was acquired in 1961. The following year, Gorton's helped form Trans World Seafood, Inc., a trading company for seafood commodities. It acquired Riggin & Robbins and Red L Foods in the same year. The year 1962 was notable for another reason as well: Gorton's began supplying McDonald's with fillet of fish for its sandwiches. (Gorton's remained the largest supplier of fish to McDonald's in the mid-1990s.)

Gorton's purchased Blue Water Sea Foods of Montreal, Canada, in 1963, then added Fulham Brothers, a west coast marketer of seafoods. With its purchase of Connecticut's Freeborn Farms in 1966, Gorton's made its first foray outside seafoods. Freeborn produced frozen hors d'oeuvres. Items like frozen deviled crab and stuffed flounder were the specialty of Bayou Foods of Mobile, Alabama, which joined Gorton's in 1966. Point Chehalis Packers of Westport, Washington, a crab and salmon producer, came aboard in 1967. Another shrimp producer, the Africa-based Crevettes du Cameroun, was acquired by Gorton's in 1968, as was B.B. Foods of Kentucky. This was also the year that Gorton's became a wholly owned subsidiary of General Mills, Inc.

When Gorton's joined General Mills, Kinney became a General Mills vice-president and Ross Clouston succeeded him as president of Gorton's. Clouston had been president and general manager of Gorton's seafood division. He steered Gorton's into research and development of seafood products, doubling the company's research and development labs in 1969. By 1971 the company was offering such new products for retail as single-serving shrimp and chips; ocean snacks; seven fish-shaped fillets, for children; and new heat-and-serve entrees. In the food service industry, Gorton's concentrated on total convenience and created new frozen prepared entrees; seafood combination dinners; and crab-stuffed fish and shrimp.

The company had sixteen plants in the early 1970s in such diverse locations as Gloucester, Los Angeles, Florida, and Alaska. The company also maintained international offices in Canada, Peru, and West Africa. Its primary brands at the time were Gorton's of Gloucester, Blue Water Seafoods, Tropic-Fair, Four Fishermen, and Bayou. A specialty products division was created in 1979 to sell batter to other food companies.

In the early 1980s, Gorton's sold Blue Water Food Service, although it still owned Blue Water's retail business in the early 1990s. The Miama-based shrimp plant was closed and the company's shrimp operations were moved to Mobile, Alabama.

Clouston became chairman in 1986, making way for Steven Warhover to become Gorton's president, a position he continued to hold in 1995. Bayou Foods was sold in 1987, a divestment that marked an end to Gorton's active acquisition and divestment philosophy. From that time through mid-1995, Gorton's has not bought or sold any other operations.

Gorton's retained its lead in 1990 in the frozen seafood category by introducing new products such as the only marinated breaded flavored shrimps on the market. In 1993 Gorton's revamped its fish offerings with its introduction of various special-flavored breaded fillets. The company expanded this line with lemon pepper fillets and southern fried country style fillets. In 1994 it offered the first non-breaded pre-grilled fish.

Gorton's was acquired by Unilever in May 1995. One of the world's largest consumer goods companies, Unilever maintained joint headquarters in London and Rotterdam in the mid-1990s. It had virtually no frozen food sales in the United States other than ice cream until it purchased Gorton's. Unilever, though, has worldwide sales of $45 billion in other markets, and was the world's largest producer of tea, ice cream, margarine, and spreads in the early 1990s. Gorton's is expected to increase Unilever's U.S. sales figures considerably.

Further Reading:

  • Jones, Syl, "A Gorton's Family Album: More Than a Century of Memories," Family: Published for the Men and Women of General Mills Family of Fine Companies, 1977, pp. 9--17.
  • Lingle, Rick, "Vacuum-Sealed Frozen Seafood," Prepared Foods, September 1992, p. 96.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 13. St. James Press, 1996.