The Most Important Lesson I Learned From America’s Banana King
“America’s Banana King” — unlike a monarch — is not a title you can inherit. And while it sounds silly, to earn that title is to have exercised the same ruthless and calculated strategies fit for a crowned dictator. At least, that was the case for Sam Zemurray.
Sam Zemurray may be one of the most underrated entrepreneurs of the 20th century. As told in The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, Zemurray’s story is one of a Russian immigrant who moves to America as a teenager, and rises to the top of an industry (and much more) with shear ambition, hustle, execution, and fearlessness. I’ll spare you further biographical details, and want to instead share what is, in my opinion, the single greatest business lesson from Zemurray’s story:
As an entrepreneur or business leader, you must regularly put yourself where the action is — in the trenches of your business and industry. (To continue the war analogy) Only from being on the front lines and working in your business can you get a clear sense of how the business is operating, what customers are saying, how employees are feeling and working, etc.
While entrepreneurs and industry titans tend to have similar traits that we like to point to as drivers of their successes, it is impossible to distill the exact reason why some people manage to achieve so much. Often, accomplishments are chalked up to a combination of intelligence, work ethic, and luck (timing).
Zemurray’s story is no different. But of the many entrepreneurial stories I’ve tried to learn from, I think Zemurray’s is one of the best at depicting the benefits of working as an operator in your own business. It affords leaders a front row seat to how things are actually getting done and keeps them aware of the changing nature of customers’ preferences, and their business and industry.
To clarify a couple points: 1) I believe this lesson is best applied in organizations where the c-suite is far removed from the day-to-day operations and 2) I am not suggesting that Musk, Zuckerberg, etc. design, engineer, or code all day but that working in your business can inform your actions as a manager and leader.
Consider this the lean startup version of managing — getting out of the boardroom and into the weeds, having conversations yourself, personally making implementation mistakes, and experimenting where the rubber meets the road. Just as lean startup methodology tries to help entrepreneurs test their assumptions about a product or service and get feedback from the customers it would most likely interest, this approach gets decision makers in positions to make observations, test their assumptions, and keep their fingers on the pulse of their businesses.
To bring the point home, Zemurray was known to labor alongside the plantation workers, in places like Guatemala and Honduras. While his reasons for working in his business were a little different than the ones I’m suggesting (he believed in the transcendent power of physical labor, and that a man can free his soul only by exhausting his body), it stands to reason that he learned a lot about his business, its workers, and the politics and conflict that affected them because he spent time in the field — even as the boss.
With that, I encourage you to adopt Zemurray’s tenets of “go see for yourself” and “don’t trust the report.” They made him a remarkable success and can benefit you too.