The Fish that Ate the Whale: Insights

I recently read Eric Cohen’s profile of Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray cleverly titled: The Fish That Ate the Whale. The sales hustler, “fruit jobber” turned banana titan went from rags to riches in one generation. He overthrew governments, employed the world’s best PR machine, bought the conglomerate that kicked him out of the industry, and defied every odds against him towards success. At his peak, Sam Zemurray and the United Fruit empire employed more than 100,000 people.

This book is as much of an introspection of Zemurray’s legacy as it of the American dream. Sam seldom applied his writings to paper and limited primary sources of working with him exist. Cohen did a well-researched profile of Zemurray. There are many lessons an entrepreneur can takeaway and apply today in their business.

Sam Zemurray’s entrepreneurial story is in the top percentile of all entrepreneurial stories. If you want to skip the book and get a TLDR summary, the following is an excellent synopsis and review of the book. There are several quality book reviews out there satiating the appetite of any curious onlooker. What I don’t find in book reviews are the key phrases and insights that make a good book worth reading. In this post, I’ll attempt to excavate a few of them. My process in doing this is relatively simple: comb through my highlights and take the top highlights and expound on them.

Seek the Action:

“When Sam Zemurray moved to New Orleans circa 1905, it was for the same reason the striver always moves to the big town: for the action.”

Reading this in 2020 seems weird. As big cities see an exodus of residents to smaller towns and Tier 2 and 3 cities, the striver today is doing just as much online as offline. A few caveats persist: first, the people who stay in the big cities will have the first opportunity to re-mold the existing infrastructure. Second, the in-person will always generate stronger bonds which create greater action. Zoom calls are deliberate. They are intentional. Their purpose is efficient. Action can be sporadic, hectic, inefficient, and strivers will always seek it. 

I believe Covid-19 will spawn pockets of action in unexpected cities.

Find a Growing Niche:

Sam Zemurray would buy inferior bananas (“ripes”) and sell them off the train in towns like Selma and Mobile. The big companies didn’t care about the bananas he bought; they would rot before entering the most popular markets. Zemurray found and exploited an unsexy, non-competitive niche. 

Also…he timed it very well. 

From The Fish that Ate The Whale:

“Perhaps not one Norteamericano in ten thousand had ever seen or tasted a banana in 1870.” As late as 1876, bananas were put on display at the World Exposition in Philadelphia in the way of a winged Pegasus. Many historians reference that expo as the moment the banana was introduced to the United States. It was priced by the slice, each wrapped in foil, at ten cents a pop.

Zemurray started in 1895:

In the last years of the nineteenth century, the sale of bananas doubled and doubled again. One day no one could identify the yellow fruit, the next day the banana was more popular than the apple. In 1898, Scientific American instructed readers on how to best consume a banana…

…Not because there was any scarcity in demand: people loved bananas from the start—the average American now consumes seventy a year.

That small niche he got into was growing fast.

The Cult of Personality Existed Then As It Does Today:

Zemurray was known to forgo awards dinner where he was recipient because he was working. Here are a few of my favorite leadership quotes on him:

Eric Cohen ciphers out Sam’s style well.

“Of course, the most important tests of leadership are intangible: How do you handle a crisis, sweet-talk a landowner, manage the rough stuff? Can you stand up to the goons, face down the mercenary who overstays his welcome? Can you figure out whom to bribe and make it stick? Can you plunge the machete all the way to the Collins? Zemurray was like a character out of Damon Runyon or Saul Bellow. He could play as dirty as anyone else in the game. (Had he been born in Chicago, they would have called him Nails.) If you saw him talking to a crew boss, sleeves rolled back, black eyes narrowed, neck thick and freckled from the sun, every atom in your body would tell you to stay away.”

Success begets success and people want to be around people who are winning. 

The most ambitious banana men began to flock to Zemurray. Dozens of them quit United Fruit and caught a ride to Puerto Cortés. Cuyamel was hungry in a way that United Fruit had not been since the retirement of Minor Keith. It was more profitable, too, its share price climbing as the price of U.F. slumped.

When Sam took over United Fruit, his first course of action was to dive head first into how the business ran: 

He did not spend his first days with accountants, nor coop himself up with reports, nor shout his head off at meetings. He went out on the road, announcing straightaway that he would begin his tenure with a six-week tour of the banana lands. He wanted to visit every country where United Fruit owned plantations, ports, railroads. He wanted to talk to the men in the fields. He wanted to see for himself.

Similarities Between Big Tech and United Fruit:

“If you want to advance a private interest, turn it into a public cause.”

Big Tech’s angle on how they are a national security asset. Here’s an excerpt from the book that immediately took my mind to recent events:

“Where did the interest of United Fruit end and the interest of the United States begin? It was impossible to tell. That was the point of all Sam’s hires: If I can perfectly align the interests of my company with the interests of top officials in the U.S. government—not the interests of the country, but the interests of the people in charge of the country—then the United States will secure my needs.”

Businesses Come and Go, Just Like People:

The international drama, the diseased bananas, the transitions of leadership, the advances in technology like the banana box (that United Fruit did not invent) and the evolving market to Asia did United Fruit in nearly two decades after Sam Zemurray passed. The business was eventually sold to Dole in a liquidation sale. One of the more sobering moments was in the final few pages, after all the grinding, corporate raiding, government overthrows, and thousands upon thousands hurt and killed, the author found himself back where it all started, one hundred and twenty-ish years ago: 

“Saddest of all is the United Fruit Building on St. Charles Avenue north of Canal Street. You can see the entrance from a passing car. The doorway is arched, the stone etched with filigree, a frieze of tropical plenty. It’s the sort of entrance that was built when this city was sure of its future and U.F. was king, the first of the truly global concerns, with a hundred ships and a million acres and a hundred thousand employees. But when you step through the arch, you find nothing but a shabby foyer, a building dumb to its own glory, its rooms rented to foreign consulates, nondescript law firms, a bank. When I went into the bank and looked at the ceiling—there was once a Diego Rivera–like mural there that showed a banana steamer coasting a palm-fringed bay—the teller seemed irritated. “What are you looking at?” “I wanted to see if the United Fruit mural was still up there.” “What’s United Fruit?”

In a hundred years will we say the same about Amazon? Does the success of multi-generational companies like Coca-Cola merit greater recognition? What is and should be the legacy of a corporation?

The Fish that Ate the Whale was a provoking glimpse into the startup world and how those small startups can produce a massive cultural impact, good or bad. How will history remember United Fruit and Sam Zemurray? Cohen’s work has uncovered a story worth studying.

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