Book Review: The Fish that Ate the Whale

The Fish that Ate the Whale (Amazon,) is a biography of Sam Zemurray, the Banana Man. The author, Rich Cohen, tracks the rise and fall and rise and fall of the banana company that Sam built through the late 19th and early 20th century.

The sheer magnitude of the rags to riches story that starts with Sam trading discarded bananas and ends with him running the United Fruit Company is completely breathtaking. Oh, and it also involves overthrowing a Latin-American government that was about to turn hostile to the banana trade. Incredible.

The book could easily be about any business in the perishable commodities business. We now take American apples and Australian kiwis in our supermarket for granted. However, there was a time before cool chain and cold storage when most produce had to be sourced within a certain geographic radius. Ships had to be unloaded, by hand, onto steam-powered trains. Most of the produce would rot and go to waste. Hemmed-in by these constraints, businesses had to work with what they had. If it involved bribing bureaucrats or overthrowing governments to ensure zero taxes and union-free labor, then so be it.

The book is also the story about most corporations. Even though, technically, a company could live on forever, most have finite lifespans. Founders who know the business inside-out inevitably age. They are replaced by “professional management” who may keep things going for a while. But eventually, most companies that die end up being run by bureaucrats far removed from the ground with very little of the spirit that shaped the company at the beginning.

Sam Zemurray’s life could very well be an exemplification of the American dream but the banana company that he built ended up being an exemplar of the worst of American business’ colonial instincts.

Recommendation: Read it now!

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