Book Review: The Fish that Ate the Whale

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Several years ago, I flew into Detroit at night and caught a cab to my hotel in the city. The cab driver was from one of those countries in Africa described as “war-torn.” He told me about his odyssey moving through several countries to the United States. He proudly showed me the book he was studying to become an American citizen.

I asked him why he didn’t stop in one of those countries along the way. At that, he waved his arm across the entire vision of the lighted city of Detroit in front of us. “Here,” he said, “you can do anything!”

I’d bet that by today he’s got his citizenship and started a business. It’s the great American immigrant story. It’s also the story of The Fish That Ate the Whale and Sam Zemurray. He arrived in the United States in 1891, from Russia. The Fish That Ate the Whale is the story of how he became the Banana King.

One reason I love reading books of business history and biography is that they usually tell a rollicking story that also has lessons in it. Rich Cohen’s book is no exception.

You’ll learn about things you may not have been curious about before. Cohen tells us a lot about the Jewish immigration to the American South in the early 20th century and how many great business empires started there. If you’re interested in something more scientific, there’s a lot of detail on the varieties of bananas and their characteristics and the entire banana business.

Zemurray started out selling bananas he bought on the docks in New Orleans and had to transport quickly to other towns before they spoiled. He saw an opportunity in being quick with a product that other people thought was useless.

The business was successful and Zemurray became an expert in the cultivation of bananas. Mostly, he became an expert in the banana business.

This book has got lots of lessons about business strategy and negotiation. You’ll read about business cycles and how you prepare for them so they don’t ruin you. You’ll learn about the difference between an entrepreneurial, there’s always a solution, spirit, like Zemurray’s, and the caretaker second and third generations.

I love the story of the way Zemurray “ate the whale” and took over the United Fruit Company. They had bought out his company to eliminate him as a competitor, but a generation of professional managers and trust fund kids was ruining the company, and it made Zemurray angry.

First, he tried to help by offering suggestions. The professional managers ignored them. Zemurray was just an immigrant with a thick Russian accent.

So, Sam Zemurray did something characteristic of his life. He looked for another way. He quietly gathered proxies. Then, he went to a shareholder’s meeting of United Fruit. He calmly waited for his turn to speak. When it came, he offered suggestions on making the company better, and the directors ridiculed him. They even made fun of his accent. One of them said, “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”

Zemurray left the room and got the proxies he’d accumulated. Then, he stormed back in to the meeting room, threw the proxies on the table, and looked at the people who had made fun of him. Then, still in a thick Russian accent, he said “You’re fired! Do you understand that?”

If you like a book that tells stories like that, The Fish That Ate the Whale is a book for you. As you read the story, you’ll pick up lessons in business. You’ll learn about an incredible period in American and business history that hasn’t received much coverage. You’ll get great quotes and a few oddities, like how William Sydney Porter came up with the term “banana republic.”

The story does not have a happy ending. You’ll read about how the company went downhill, how the CIA used it as a tool of policy in Central America, and how Zemurray, who could solve any problem, couldn’t solve the problem of succession.

There are some things you may not like about this book. If you don’t like long digressions into details, like the history of bananas or the history of Jewish shopkeepers in the American South, you probably won’t like this book very much. If you’re looking for clearly-articulated business lessons, this isn’t the book for you, either. With a few exceptions, Cohen embeds the lessons in the story.

Bottom Line

The Fish That Ate the Whale is a great book about the United Fruit Company, Sam Zemurray, and American business and foreign policy in the early 20th century.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.

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