The Fish That Ate the Whale – Rich Cohen

The Fish That Ate the Whale [LINK] – Rich Cohen

A fascinating account of Samuel Zemurray; a Russian immigrant who rose from banana jockey to banana boss. His story epitomizes the American Dream, and then some. We follow Sam as he first discovers the yet-to-be ubiquitous fruit and starts his company, Cuyamel Fruit, by discovering a niche for selling discarded, yet perfectly edible, spotted and freckled bananas. Throughout his tenure running Cuyamel, Zemurray has numerous encounters with the U.S. government. In a time where conflicts of interest were not heavily scrutinized, Zemurray’s company was either employing or employed much of the political power in the U.S. and Honduras, including being a major driving force in overthrowing the populist Honduras regime. While there is no fairy tale ending, this is an interesting story of a man who was driven to win, won, lost, and ultimately gave everything away.

The Banana Man, as he was called, embodied the capitalist mentality, producing a superior, lower cost product, at all costs. He was a man of the people, working in the jungle close to the action. His philosophy was simple: ‘You’re there, we’re here; Go see for yourself; Don’t trust the report.’ Because of this, he knew every aspect of the business, there wasn’t a job he couldn’t do. He believed in physical labor. In Zemurray’s America, you didn’t have to be a Rockefeller to make money, you started at the bottom and fought your way to the top.

He never lost faith in a situation. He was an optimist, though not necessarily a happy one. The prize goes to the one who doesn’t lose his head in turmoil. He considered small talk a weakness, and emotion separate for business: “Show me a happy man and I will show you a man who is getting nothing accomplished in this world.”

With the governments urging, Cuyamel merged with United Fruit. After years of failed business, the board brought back Zemurray to fix the new company. Trying to restore their public image, Zemurray hired Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations. Bernays specialized in subconscious influence and persuasion. “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” Bernays was a master of diversion. If you don’t want someone to find the truth, give them a distraction. A particular story I found interesting was when a group of book publishers noticed dwindling numbers. Bernays was brought in, but did he go into schools and make the case for books? No, he talked to the architects who were designing new suburban homes and convinced them a house is not modern if it does not include built-in bookshelves. This is how he worked. Indirect persuasion, dealing with the subconscious.

Zemurray’s story is a reminder that hard work pays off. Anything is possible… with a little bit of luck (persuasion). A tale of rags-to-riches success that the American Dream can exemplify. When one looks deeper, the story of Zemurray reminds us that the playing field isn’t equal. We are pitted against each other regardless of race, religion and identity. If you want to be successful, you have to work hard. Companies and governments do not act in the best interest of all people, but for those who stand to benefit the most. Business is good, if you find yourself on the same side as Sam, The Banana Man.