Profiles in Action
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Profiles in Action

How to Make Millions Selling Garbage Bananas

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

Samuel Zemurray just waltzed into a board of directors meeting of United Fruit, one of the largest companies in the history of civilization, and told everyone they were fired. They had no idea what he was talking about.

United Fruit had acquired Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Co. with $31.5 million in stock a few years before, making Zemurray their largest single shareholder, and now he had enough proxy votes for a one-man hostile takeover.

United Fruit’s stock was down nearly 90% due to poor management and The Great Depression. Zemurray had spent too many years sweating in Central American jungles to let a bunch of rich known-nothings in Boston ruin his life’s work.

If you’re wondering where Sam the Banana Man got his chutzpah, we have to go to the beginning, to the shores of Mobile, Alabama.

Sam came to America a penniless Russian immigrant. He started in the banana trade in 1895, when he saw an opportunity where no one else would dare look — garbage bananas — or “ripes” in the trade.

Ripes were bananas that traders dumped once they were unloaded because they would spoil in a few days — not enough time to get them to market. Zemurray thought he could win this race against time, by selling ripes from a boxcar on the Illinois Central rail line. He bought as many ripes as he could with $150, his entire nut, and after his first trip, he returned with $40 in profit. His new business had terrible margins, but by 1899, four years after he started, Sam sold 20,000 bananas, in 1903 he sold 574,000. By 21 he had $100,000 in the bank, which would make him a millionaire today.

Selling bananas was a brutal race against time, a battle Zemurray won through pure hustle. There was nothing romantic about it, but Sam wasn’t much for status. When the New York Times reported his takeover of United Fruit, he was still a mystery to them. Imagine if Apple’s stock collapsed and a barely-known single shareholder took it over? That’s essential what Sam Zemurray did.

Instead, Sam ground out his days selling ripes, fueled by the belief that if he could sell 10,000 bananas he could sell 10 million. When Zemurray started, most Americans had never even seen a banana, but Sam pushed forward with a faith that he could shape the world around him.

When Zemurray was told he couldn’t build a railroad bridge in Central America, he built two long docks that could be temporarily connected and called them “little old wharfs” when questioned by government officials.

When there was a land dispute about a stretch of fertile land between Guatemala and Honduras, Sam paid each party for the land — effectively paying for it twice — while his rival at the time, United Fruit, hired teams of lawyers to figure out who rightfully owned the land.

When an unfriendly government in Honduras was about to tax his young, over-leveraged Cuyamel Fruit Co. into bankruptcy, he single-handedly planned and funded a military coup of Honduras (hence the term Banana Republics), all with the State Department and Secret Service tailing him.

All of this defiance, all of this ambition, all of this arrogance, all channeled into selling shitty bananas. What opportunity would we have to be presented with to put everything we had into it, damn the results? Probably something cooler than peddling fruit. What opportunities do we overlook because there’s no status in it, or the road to success seems too long?

The story of Sam’s Cuyamel Fruit Co. shows us the job, the startup, the opportunity almost doesn’t matter — what you bring to it does. Violent overthrows of democratically elected governments notwithstanding, Sam the Banana Man’s ambitious striving, without a wasted thought for attention, status, or recognition, is a reminder for us today, when it seems that is all anyone is striving for.

Zemurray ended up running the United Fruit Company for about 25 years, starting in 1933. The company grew enormously during his tenure, at one point United Fruit owned the largest private fleet of steamships in the world, and Sam was considered the most important man in Central America. When Samuel Zemurray died in 1961, the New York Times called him, “The fish that swallowed the whale.”

Recommended Reading: The Fish That Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen

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In the spirit of JFK’s Profiles In Courage (but with far less ambition), these are short profiles of people who took right action to accomplish amazing things. Use their lessons to get unstuck, keep plugging away, or do the thing you’ve always wanted to do.

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