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Opportunity: What you can learn from Sam, the Banana Man

Opportunity and Sam, the Banana Man


Banana Man
Source: Daniel Jones


Sam, the Banana Man?


Sam Zemurray was born in the Russian Empire at the latter end of the 19th Century.  Born into a poor Jewish family, they were too poor to support him through school and, as a result, he had no formal education.


In his early teens, Sam emigrated to the United States of America.  At the age of 17 he recognised an opportunity where others spotted crisis.  By the age of 21, he had banked $100,000.  A hundred grand in 1898… that’s a lot of money!  By 1930, Sam was selling his company for $31.5 million in stock shares; retiring at the youthful age of 53.


So, how did he do it?


He spotted opportunities… and used them!


One day, Sam was watching cargo ships unload bananas onto the dockside.  He watched carefully as the bananas were separated according to their colour – green, unripened ones were boxed ready for transit.  The yellow and not-fully green ones were put to one side for disposal.  Sam wanted to find out why – after all, these were perfectly fine bananas!  He established that after the bananas reached shore, they continued their transit journey by rail – often for days.  As these bananas were ripening or already ripe, they wouldn’t survive the transit and would be spoiled by the time they reached their destination.


Sam spotted an opportunity and resolved to purchase these “waste” bananas.


Sam bought a couple of thousand bananas at a low-price from the company and set to work.  He knew he didn’t have long, so rented a section of a train so he could rush his new cargo to market.  Sam had 3 days at most to get his bananas there before they spoiled… and the journey would take 3 days.


This already hairy journey was complicated further when the train failed to keep up with its schedule… the 3 day journey was stretching into six!  So, what did Sam do?  He recognised the opportunity.  He offered a telegraph operator a percentage of his sales if he were to radio ahead and let the towns down the track know that he’d be selling bananas from the train.  And that’s what he did… time and time again.


In the end, merchants would rush up to the train line to purchase bananas, so they could offer their customers a product they usually had little opportunity to buy (due to the “good stock” being ferried out to big town markets).  And Sam, the man who spotted opportunities where others saw disaster, ended up building a massive empire and becoming very rich along the way.


What I’ve learnt from Sam:


  • Identify the opportunity – and take it!  Easier said than done, I appreciate – especially in crisis situations where panic is the usual order of the day.  However, try stepping back and distancing yourself from the situation.  Viewing situations from a non-emotive perspective can often lead to good opportunity spotting.
  • Persevere – don’t let the distractions and set-backs knock your confidence or muddy your path.  Sam could have given up several times along the way.  But he didn’t… and he succeeded… massively.
  • Don’t restrict yourself by thinking you can’t – Sam could have resigned himself to the inevitability of his future.  After all, he was a poor, foreign and uneducated immigrant.  But he didn’t.  He recognised each opportunity as it came along and seized upon it.


When other people view obstacles and insurmountable challenges, commit yourself to searching for the opportunities.


In recognising the opportunities you’ll not only strengthen your positive personal outlook, but you’ll also set yourself up to succeed where others failed.


Learn more:


If you want to find out more about Sam Zemurray, check out these links.  Please note, I’m not affiliated with these in any way and cannot vouch for their accuracy.


Cracked: People who overcame huge obstacles to become famous

Wiki – Sam Zemurray

Slate – The Fish that ate the Whale


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