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The Fish That Ate the Whale

'The Fish That Ate the Whale' is an elegantly written cautionary tale about how hubris can destroy a powerful company.

By Chris Hartman / October 18, 2012

The Fish That Ate the Whale By Rich Cohen Farrar, Straus and Giroux 288 pp.

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Georges Doriot, the eminent Harvard Business School professor and widely acknowledged “father of venture capital,” had an annual ritual: He would have his students examine a Boston business directory from 100 years prior and then ask them how many of those businesses were still in operation. Invariably, the response ranged from few to none. It was a sobering introduction to the ephemeral nature of even the most well-known and powerful American companies. In Rich Cohen’s wonderful The Fish That Ate the Whale, we are introduced to just such a vanishing corporation, United Fruit Company, and its peripatetic and hyper-focused leader, Samuel “Sam the Banana Man” Zemurray.

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Cohen, author of the best-selling "Tough Jews" and "Sweet and Low," has exhaustively researched Zemurray, a Russian émigré who arrived in New York City in 1891 with hardly a cent to his name and who, through hard work, ambition – and not a little luck – rose to become head of United Fruit for approximately 25 years, from the early 1930s through the 1950s. Cohen describes the young Zemurray as "hardened as the men in Walker Evans’ photos, a tough operator, a dead-end kid” – a scrappy worker who demonstrated that one didn’t need to be a Rockefeller to understand the basics of success: start at the bottom, fight your way to the top.

Zemurray emigrated to Alabama shortly after arriving in America, first to Selma, where he worked in his uncle’s store, and shortly thereafter to Mobile. He laid eyes on his first banana on the Mobile docks in 1893, and was quick to carve out a niche for himself in the field peddling “ripes”: bananas that were days from expiring, which the bigger companies like United Fruit considered worthless. Zemurray was both highly aggressive and observant in plying his trade – he was fond of quoting “There is no problem you can’t solve if you understand your business from A to Z” – and by the time he was 21, he was selling nearly 600,000 bananas a year and was essentially a millionaire.

His labors came to the attention of Andrew Preston, the president of United Fruit, who came to Mobile in 1903 and met with Zemurray, caling him "a risk taker ... thinker and a doer.” Preston signed a contract with Zemurray giving the young “fruit jobber” the rights to United Fruit’s ripes. At this point Cohen likens Zemurray to “a bike racer riding in the windbreak of a semitruck – the semitruck being United Fruit” and adds that, “If he had stopped there, his would have been a great success story.”

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