Sam Zemurray was a Russian Jew who arrived in the USA aged 12, in the late 1890s. He had that inner grit, or fire (or whatever you want to call it) seemingly present in all great entrepreneurs. He would have been in amongst it wherever he was. It just so happened he was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the burgeoning banana business. It took him to New Orleans.
Steadily, his business grew and grew. He expanded his operations, went from flogging cast off bananas on train cars to chartering enormous vessels.
His insatiable drive for more brought him to Honduras. With a new wife and baby daughter to support, he put everything on the line in this unbelievably unstable, unbelievably corrupt nation, nestled in the sweltering South American subcontinent. Why? It was perfect banana territory.
Zemurray did what he needed to do to buy the land he needed: making deals, taking names, learning Spanish like a local, crossing the country on the back of a bad tempered mule, ingratiating himself into the local community.
Although the land was rich and filled with potential, Honduras as a nation was teetering on the brink of financial ruin. The threat of Britain collecting on some of its debts led to a potential refinancing by JP Morgan, at the prompting of the US government (the US didn’t want the British encroaching on ‘their turf’).
Terms were worked out that would appease the British – but nullify all the painstaking work Zemurray had been doing. It relied on sucking the wealth from the new generation of entrepreneurs who’d travelled to Honduras. The new taxes, levies and fines imposed on new businesses would cripple him.
Nevee one to take anything laying down, he tried to tackle the problem through traditional methods: lobbying, buying time and influence. Before long, Zemurray was summoned before the Secretary of State, and told in no uncertain terms to stop what he was doing immediately, to get out of Honduras – and stop his meddling. Or else.
What would you do? A young man, an immigrant, with all the might of the US establishment levelled against you? Would you cut your losses? You might think you’d be perfectly within your rights to, facing those odds.
But Zemurray saw life as a series of problems to solve. The way he looked at it, the US had made a deal with the Honduran government – the current government, that is. What if there was a different government in power?
He set about organising, financing and overseeing what would become a coup. Utilising mercenaries, exiled military veterans and disgruntled locals, Zemurray assembled the tools he needed to pull off this audacious stunt. A bit of cunning media manipulation, a few mostly bloodless battles – and public opinion swayed. Out with the old government…
And in with the new, with Zemurray the kingmaker. He was given unparalleled access to the land, incredible tax rates, and was heralded as a local hero.
What audacity. What ingenuity.
“The greatness of Zemurray lies in the fact that he never lost faith in his ability to salvage a situation. Bad things happened to him, as to everyone, but unlike so many he was never tempted by failure.”
Be smart, be tenacious – and be relentless. Find your angle. Make it work. Learn from the Banana King.
This blog (and the quote) was inspired by Rich Cohen’s excellent book, The Fish That Ate The Whale. I highly recommend it.