Listen now on
#255 Sam Zemurray (Banana King)
July 2nd, 2022 | E255

What I learned from rereading The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen.


Come see a live show with me and Patrick O'Shaughnessy from Invest Like The Best on October 19th in New York City. 

Get your tickets here


Subscribe to listen to Founders Premium — Subscribers can ask me questions directly and listen to Ask Me Anything (AMA) episodes.


[0:47] This story can shock and infuriate us, and it does. But I found it invigorating, too. It told me that the life of the nation was written not only by speech-making grandees in funny hats but also by street-corner boys, immigrant strivers, crazed and driven, some with one good idea, some with thousands, willing to go to the ends of the earth to make their vision real.

[4:56] Tycoon's War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America's Most Famous Military Adventurer by Stephen Dando-Collins (Founders #55)

[6:00] Unlike Vanderbilt's other adversaries William Walker was not afraid of Cornelius when he should have been.

[8:21] The immigrants of that era could not afford to be children.

[8:42] The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World's Greatest Negotiator by Rich Cohen

[8:54] He was driven by the same raw energy that has always attracted the most ambitious to America, then pushed them to the head of the crowd. Grasper, climber-nasty ways of describing this kid, who wants what you take for granted. From his first months in America, he was scheming, looking for a way to get ahead. You did not need to be a Rockefeller to know the basics of the dream: Start at the bottom, fight your way to the top.

[10:01] There is no problem you can't solve if you understand your business from A to Z.

[13:08]  Sam spotted an opportunity where others saw nothing.

[14:17] As far as he was concerned, ripes were considered trash only because Boston Fruit and similar firms were too slow-footed to cover ground. It was a calculation based on arrogance. I can be fast where others have been slow. I can hustle where others have been satisfied with the easy pickings of the trade.

[14:42] The kid on the streets is getting a shot at a dream. He sees the guy who gets rich and thinks, yep, that'll be me. He ignores the other stories going around.  // There's no way to quantify all that on a spreadsheet, but it's that dream of being the exception, the one who gets rich and gets out before he gets got that's the key to a hustler's motivation. Decoded by Jay Z. (Founders #238)

[22:36] He was pure hustle.

[24:15] Preston later spoke of Zemurray with admiration. He said the kid from Russia was closer in spirit to the banana pioneers than anyone else working. "He's a risk taker," Preston explained, “he's a thinker, and he's a doer.”

[26:33] They don't write books about people that stopped there.

[28:48] Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow (Founders #248) and John D: The Founding Father of the Rockefellers by David Freeman Hawke. (#254)

[30:22] He seemed to strive for the sake of striving.

[30:44] If you're on a mans side you stay on that mans side or you're no better than a goddamn animal.

[31:11] The world is a mere succession of fortunes made and lost, lessons learned and forgotten and learned again.

[35:41] A man whose commitment could not be questioned, who fed his own brothers to the jungle.

[36:00] The Forgotten Highlander: An Incredible WWII Story of Survival in the Pacificby Alistair Urquhart.

[37:02] Why the Founders of United Fruit were the Rockefellers of bananas.

[43:23] He kept quiet because talking only drives up the price.

[44:19] There are times when certain cards sit unclaimed in the common pile, when certain properties become available that will never be available again. A good businessman feels these moments like a fall in the barometric pressure. A great businessman is dumb enough to act on them even when he cannot afford to.

[49:30] He believed in the transcendent power of physical labor—that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body.

[58:04] He disdained bureaucracy and hated paperwork. So seldom did he dictate a letter that he requires no full-time secretary.

[1:00:01] He was respected because he understood the trade. By the time he was 40 he had served in every position. There was not a job he could not do nor a task he could not accomplish. He considered it a secret of his success.

[1:01:02] Rick Rubin: In the Studio by Jake Brown. (Founders #245)

[1:04:00] Zemurray was the founder, forever on the attack, at work, in progress, growing by trial and error.

[1:06:44] Here was a self-made man, filled with the most dangerous kind of confidence: he had done it before and believed he could do it again. This gave him the air of a berserker, who says, If you're going to fight me, you better kill me. If you’ve ever known such a person, you will recognize the type at once. If he does not say much, it's because he considers small talk a weakness. Wars are not won by running your mouth. I'm describing a once essential American type that has largely vanished. Men who channeled all their love and fear into the business, the factory, the plantation, the shop.

[1:07:44] Founder Mentality vs Big Company Mentality: When this mess of deeds came to light, United Fruit did what big bureaucracy-heavy companies always do: hired lawyers and investigators to search every file for the identity of the true owner. This took months. In the meantime, Zemurray, meeting separately with each claimant, simply bought the land from them both. He bought it twice paid a little more, yes, but if you factor in the cost of all those lawyers, probably still spent less than United Fruit and came away with the prize.

[1:09:04] His philosophy: Get up first, work harder, get your hands in the dirt and blood in your eyes.

[1:13:02] For every move there is a counter move. For every disaster there is a recovery. He never lost faith in his own agency.

[1:13:57] A man focused on the near horizon of costs can sometimes lose sight of the far horizon of potential windfall.

[1:16:22] You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I'm going to straighten it out.

[1:19:03] In a time of crisis the mere evidence of activity can be enough to get things moving.

[1:19:42] Zemurray was never heard to bitch or justify. He was a member of a generation that lived by the maxim: Never complain, never explain.

[1:23:08] The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye

[1:24:14] He should link his private interest to a public cause.

[1:25:32] In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

[1:28:28] Sam's defining characteristic was his belief in his own agency, his refusal to despair. No story is without the possibility of redemption; with cleverness and hustle, the worst can be overcome. I can't help but feel that we would do well by emulating Sam Zemurray–not the brutality or the conquest, but the righteous anger that sent the striver into the boardroom of laughing elites, waving his proxies, shouting, "You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I'm going to straighten it out.

“I have listened to every episode released and look forward to every episode that comes out. The only criticism I would have is that after each podcast I usually want to buy the book because I am interested, so my poor wallet suffers. ”

— Gareth

Be like Gareth. Buy a book: All the books featured on Founders Podcast