Retrospect: The story of Sam the Banana Man

sam the banana man
Samuel Zemurray in 1961. From the Times-Picayune archives.

Copies of the February 19, 1951, edition of Life magazine sold quickly in Selma. The periodical featured the story of a humble former resident who rose to lead one of the world’s largest companies. By the time the article appeared, Samuel Zemurray had run the United Fruit Company for more than a decade, presiding over three million acres of produce across 10 countries, more than 70,000 employees and a fleet of 60 ships. He was a man with a complicated legacy: His business acumen was astounding, yet his meddling in foreign affairs reaped a long, dark harvest of political unrest in Central America. Still, older Selmians knew him simply as “Sam the Banana Man.” 

He was born in 1877 on a small farm near the Bessarabian town of Kishinev within the vast Russian empire. In 1891, he arrived in New York, bound for Selma where a relative operated a small grocery. Zemurray was a striver. Working as a stock clerk and tin peddler, he saved enough money to relocate his family to America.  

On Selma’s dusty streets one fateful day in 1893, the industrious Zemurray saw his first banana. The curious fruit that was once an aristocratic delicacy was quickly becoming a staple of American kitchens. Bananas were big business and Zemurray resolved to
become a fruit merchant. He headed south to Mobile.

sam the banana man
An unidentified man sorts through bananas at the United Fruit Company.Photos courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Life profile called Zemurray “big, blunt and earthy.” Prone to vulgarities, he stood out amongst starched-shirt executives “like a cactus in a rose garden.” Yet amongst the incongruous lot who worked along Mobile’s waterfront — burley stevedores, sunbaked dockworkers and suspendered managers in straw hats — the brawny teenaged immigrant likely appeared right at home. 

Banana conveyors at United Fruit Company in New Orleans in about 1910.

Mobile’s banana docks stretched out for several blocks. For an old port city far from its antebellum glory days, the lucrative oblong fruit was an odd sort of savior. By the turn of the twentieth century more than 400,000 bunches a year came through Mobile, making it the nation’s third-largest banana importer. 

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Samuel Zemurray was the kind of man Saul Bellow once described as a “first-class noticer.” He watched as workers unloaded the ships by hand, sorted and weighed the fruit and then packed it into trains, which sped them across a banana-hungry nation. Amidst this frenetic scene, young Zemurray found an untapped business opportunity. He noticed that the yellow, freckled bananas — referred to on the docks as “ripes” — were largely ignored. The problem with ripes was timing. There was simply no way to get them to faraway retailers before they spoiled. 

Bananas in Mobile were moved mostly by hand.

To a corporate behemoth like the United Fruit Company, ripes were essentially worthless. But not to Zemurray, who with $150 purchased enough of the culls to fill a boxcar. He spent the next six days selling the product to grocers in nearby towns. Although he profited just $40 for his initial effort, Zemurray had found his calling. He was henceforth “Sam the Banana Man,” a mainstay at town markets in Alabama and Mississippi. In 1899, Zemurray sold 20,000 bananas. Four years later, the number topped 500,000.  

After nearly a decade selling ripes, Zemurray resolved to become an importer himself. For this he turned to a new business partner, respected Mobile fruit merchant Ashbel Hubbard. The two men formed the Hubbard-Zemurray Steamship Company with just $30,000 in capital and a single, wave-battered steamer.

But it was a beginning. In 1910, Zemurray acquired the Cuyamel Fruit Company and dispatched Hubbard to secure enough loans to finance widespread land acquisitions in Honduras.

Zemurray was unafraid of directly challenging his competitors. The Life profile included the story of a large tract of coveted fertile land in Honduras. While United Fruit’s lawyers dithered because of a disputed property title, Zemurray simply paid each of the claimants separately and secured the land. Zemurray also often influenced the internal politics of Honduras to his own favor. To prevent an increase on banana export taxes in the early 1900s, he privately funded revolutionaries who overthrew the government and installed a more pliable president. The price of Zemurray’s support was high: No new taxes or duties on his company. In the 1950s he orchestrated a similar outcome in Guatemala. 

In January 1914, Zemurray relocated Cuyamel Fruit’s headquarters to New Orleans. The move cost Alabama’s port city an estimated $200,000 annually. Thereafter less than one-third of the company’s banana imports came through Mobile. That same year, Zemurray bought out Ashbel Hubbard and assumed total control of Cuyamel. 

The Banana Man’s star continued to rise. By 1929, he oversaw 14% of the American banana trade. His company’s stock price rose from $63 to $107 that year. At the same time United Fruit continued a steady downward trend, shedding $50 a share to $108. In November 1929, mere weeks after the stock market crash, United Fruit acquired Cuyamel with an outright payment of 300,000 shares of stock. The merger made Zemurray one of the richest men in America and allowed the workers of his beloved Cuyamel to keep their jobs. The Banana Man retired to his Louisiana mansion. 

In the three years following the merger, United Fruit’s profits fell by 85%. When the stock finally bottomed out at $10 a share, Zemurray had lost nearly all his fortune. Management was the problem, he learned, not labor. 

He returned to the fray. 

Zemurray helped fund installing Manuel Bonilla as president of Honduras.

When United Fruit’s high-brow leadership ignored his suggestions, Zemurray orchestrated one of the most stunning takeovers in modern corporate history, wresting away board control and installing himself as chairman. Zemurray preferred the ground-level analysis of workers over the company’s large crop of desk-bound overthinkers. 

He fired a quarter of United Fruit’s executives. “He wanted banana men, not theorists,” wrote one observer.    

Investors expressed confidence in Zemurray’s leadership. United Fruit’s stock doubled within two weeks of the Banana Man’s boardroom coup and he led the company for the next quarter-century. 

Samuel Zemurray, who came to America with nothing and built a banana empire, died in the finest home in New Orleans on Nov. 30, 1961 at the age of 84.  

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