The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King

Amazing story about Sam Zemurray, an entrepreneur who helped developed the banana trade in the U.S.

Favorite line: “You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough,” Zemurray told them. “I’m going to straighten it out.”

My Notes

he kept the job just long enough to know he would rather be the man who owned the hog than the man who collected the junk, and would rather be the man who discarded the sheet metal than the man who owned the hog.

He was greedy for information.

Sam grew fixated on ripes, recognizing a product where others had seen only trash.

It was the worldview of the immigrant: understanding how so-called garbage might be valued under a different name, seeing nutrition where others saw only waste.

As far as he was concerned, ripes were considered trash only because Boston Fruit and similar firms were too slow-footed to cover ground. It was a calculation based on arrogance. I can be fast where others have been slow. I can hustle where others have been satisfied with the easy pickings of the trade.

Zemurray had stumbled on a niche: ripes, overlooked at the bottom of the trade.

He was pure hustle.

A few years before, Zemurray seemed like a fool buying garbage. Now look what he’d accomplished!

banana plant, under the best conditions, can grow twenty inches in twenty-four hours.

It’s never out of season.

It was these men who decided the fruit should be marketed not as a delicacy for the rich but as a staple for the poor. Hence the effort to lower the price.

Andrew Preston would not stop talking about bananas. Like Baker before him and like Zemurray after, he had spotted a niche. He knew bananas were going to be huge, just knew it!

was a factor in the success of the banana companies: the cheap prices paid for land by the gringos was considered a windfall by local owners, who believed the lowlands a dangerous waste with no value at all.

U.F. stationed an agent at South Ferry terminal in New York, where the Ellis Island Ferry landed. Handing a banana to each immigrant who came off the boats, the agent said, “Welcome to America!” This was to associate the banana with the nation, a delicacy of the New World,

By growing its product there and selling it here, U.F. had stumbled on the greatest tax-saving, law-avoiding scheme of all time.

It was after the birth of Doris that Sam Zemurray decided he needed to get bigger and make more.

The only way to do this was to expand. And the only way to do this was to plant his own bananas.

There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure. A great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to.

Why bananas? Because it was the nearest product at hand. The Southern markets reeked of them. If he had settled in Chicago, it would have been beef;

In the end, it does not matter what you’re stocking—selling is the thing.

His years in the jungle gave him experience rare in the trade. Unlike most of his competitors, he understood every part of the business,

Planted correctly, a banana plantation is a never-ending bounty.

If you were Zemurray, an entrepreneur at the key moment, when you knew, just knew, you had to risk everything, that this was your shot,

There was not a job he could not do, nor a task he could not accomplish. (He considered it a secret of his success.)

He was up every morning at dawn, having breakfast, standing on his head, walking in the fields. As far as possible, he refrained from giving interviews, addressing shareholders, or attending functions, all of which took him away from his work.

corporation ages like a person. As the years go by and the founders die off, making way for the bureaucrats of the second and third generations, the ecstatic, risk-taking, just-for-the-hell-of-it spirit that built the company gives way to a comfortable middle age.

This was a preferred Zemurray tactic: if you meet a truly formidable foe, flip him.

Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.

that giving with display is not giving, but trading. I give you money, you give me prestige. Philanthropy that does not degrade is done so quietly not even the rescued learns the name of his rescuer.

The greatness of Zemurray lies in the fact that he never lost faith in his ability to salvage a situation. Bad things happened to him as bad things happen to everyone, but unlike so many he was never tempted by failure. He never felt powerless or trapped. He was, as I said, an optimist. He stood in constant defiance.

For every move, there is a countermove. For every disaster, there is a recovery.

When Zemurray spoke to the board again several months later, he had with him a bagful of proxies, the voting rights turned over to him by other stockholders.

When Zemurray finished, Wing smiled and said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Zemurray, I can’t understand a word of what you say.”

In truth, he had only gone to retrieve his bag of proxies. Returning to the boardroom, he slapped them on the table and said, “You’re fired! Can you understand that, Mr. Chairman?”

“You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough,” Zemurray told them. “I’m going to straighten it out.”

What do you do when your product rots? Find something else to sell.

Both sides took the same lesson from the war: compassion is weakness, mercy a disease. You must be willing to go all the way.

as long as you’re breathing, the end remains to be written.

I can’t help but feel, after all the talk of America’s decline, that we would do well by emulating Sam Zemurray—not the brutality or the conquest, but the righteous anger that sent the striver into the boardroom of laughing elites, waving his proxies, shouting, “You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I’m going to straighten it out.”