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Posted on Nov 29, 2010

Few fish merchants in recent times can lay claim to a prouder family legacy in the fish trade than Bob Stansfield. He has four sons in the business, all very successful in their own specialised field.

There can be little doubt that they owe much of their success, especially in the early days, to their father's wise counsel and guidance and his determination to ensure family cohesion.

Kevin Stansfield, of KR Stansfield Ltd, moved into a new factory in Makings Way, Grimsby, in 2008 and specialises in plaice.

Steve and Richard Stansfield, of Flatfish Ltd, have a modern factory unit in Stirling Street, Grimsby amazingly, on the very spot where Bob was born in 1932 and are market leaders in the supply of lemon soles, counting Waitrose as one of their chief customers.

Meanwhile Gary Stansfieki, who runs Ron Meadows (Grimsby) Ltd, is a specialist in the supply of cod and haddock. Bob also has two daughters, Denise and Linda, but they are not involved with the seafood business.

The Stansfield fishing heritage is as much part of Grimsby as the Dock Tower and stretches back almost as many years. Bob's father ran away to sea on a sailing barge when he was just 12 and then became a fulltime fisherman. "I don't know the reason, but young people did that sort of thing in those days," said Bob.

He grew up in a large, close knit family in a terraced house in Stirling Street which was pulled down long ago and is now the site of the Flatfish Factory. He said: "Who could have predicted something like that no-one, I suppose."

During the war his father went to sea, first as a fisherman and later in the Merchant Navy. The German submarine menace meant they were both highly dangerous occupations, but he came through unscathed. Bob's older brother Bill served for part of the war on motor torpedo boats in the Royal Navy.

When he left St John's School at 14 there were few career choices in those days, so he did what most young lads of the day did became a "deckie learner" on trawlers.

He eventually qualified as a deckhand, but in between trips he would pick up some extra work as a barrow boy on the Pontoon along with a few tricks in the art of buying and selling fish.

"I enjoyed fishing in some ways, but very often there was not much money at the end of a trip and that was the part I didn't like," he said. After he met and married his wife Jennie, Bob decided to stay ashore and became a buyer for a firm called Elkington.

He recalled: "They were tough times because there were so many firms on the docks in those days and I was up against 2,000 other buyers. The price of fish was a bit different too."

He was also keen to get involved with his own business and entered a partnership with Crownall Fisheries, which was followed by a similar arrangement with Ron Meadows. The two eventually split up, but Bob kept the firm of Ron Meadows Ltd, which became the base for the rest of his career on the docks. He also had a young family who were growing up and the boys were keen to follow their father into the fish business.

The first to leave school was Kevin, but rather than take him into Ron Meadows he decided to help him set up his own business.

Bob explains his philosophy: "We are a close family and I was deter-mined to keep it that way. So I took care of the cod and haddock side and then gave my plaice business to Kevin for him to sell on.

"That way we were not bidding or working against each other. And that is the way I have done it with all my family".

Gary started out as an apprentice bricklayer with Wilde and Williams, a local building company, but it folded, so he decided to join his father in the fish trade. Today, Gary runs Ron Meadows Lid which specialises in cod and haddock.

By the time Steve was ready to leave school, Bob had taken on Kenny Perrin, who knew a thing or two about lemon sole. "In fact Kenny was my cod and haddock buyer, but he would bring back a few boxes of lemons at the same time. One thing led to another and before long we were handling a lot of lemons.

"I decided then to create a separate lemon business with Kenny and Steve as partners. We called it Flatfish and it worked like a charm, but sadly Kenny died and Steve then found himself on his own.

The business grew and moved into a modern council-owned factory unit on the fish docks, which stood out because of the large model of a lemon sole on the front of the building.

Richard, the youngest son, came into Flatfish through a small fish freezing operation his father had helped him establish. He started freezing for Flatfish, and then moved into the business itself, eventually taking over the sales operation.

The Flatfish success story has been well documented, with the acquisition of the former Glentons bakery in Stirling Street, followed by several multi-million pound extensions and upgrades.

Bob said: "I am proud of what all my sons have achieved. They have done extremely well. While they deal in almost every kind of fish these days, because that is the way of the business now, I made sure they started out selling in quite different areas. That way they would not compete with each other."

He remains upbeat about the future of Grimsby as major fish processing centre. "I wish we had more trawlers sailing from the port because Grimsby lost a lot when they went. But that is the way it is and I don't suppose it will ever go back to that again.

"I also think fish farming is going to become increasingly important in the future," he observes. Bob retired when he reached 65 and says he missed the buzz of the market and the auction sales during his first few years away from work.

Now that he has settled into retirement he says he is pleased to watch the success of his family. Does he still offer advice to his sons? Bob smiled: "I try to sometimes but they don't listen and that is how it should be.

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