‘Eli and the Octopus’ by Matt García review
Eli and the Octopus: The CEO Who Tried to Reform One of the World’s Most Notorious Corporations by Matt García is a human story amid mergers, sales, profits and losses.
Is it possible for an exploitative multinational corporation to be run in an ethical way? Today, the question might seem hopelessly naïve. But in 1968, when Eli Black sought to take control of the United Fruit Company, he did so thinking it possible to create a socially responsible international conglomerate. According to Matt García’s Eli and the Octopus, Black believed this so strongly that, when it became apparent that it was impossible, he ‘knocked a hole through the quarter-inch-thick glass of his office window in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper and jumped’. García’s rendering of Black’s early life, social ethics and business trajectory begins with this tragic ending, a human story that kept me engaged with the book even when details of mergers, sales, profits and losses threatened to dampen my curiosity.
Eli Black (born Eliasz Menasze Blachowicz) migrated to the US from Poland as a child, arriving in New York with his mother and two sisters. They joined Eli’s father, an Orthodox poultry slaughterer. Black studied at Yeshiva College, intending to become a rabbi. Yet as he was finishing his studies at Yeshiva he had already begun night classes at Columbia University Business School. In 1945, as the war ended, Black proposed to Shirley Lubell and resigned as rabbi, taking a position in sales at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street. As the Black family grew, he passed from one position and company to another, eventually becoming CEO of American Seal-Kap (AMK, a producer of milk bottle caps), where he streamlined production and took risks that recognised the changing consumption habits of American families. Black repeated this formula after acquiring the meatpacking firm John Morrell and Company.
Black’s confidence that he could simply replicate his previous successes (streamline, focus on efficiency, negotiate with unions, identify changes in consumption, repeat)led him, in 1970, to acquire United Fruit, its merger with AMK forming United Brands (the ‘octopus’ of the title). Various other companies (from lettuce growers to sunglass makers) were brought under the United Brands umbrella. Black promoted a socially conscious model, arguing that a corporation is responsible not only to its shareholders, but also to its workers and their communities. Black took over United Fruit just as its crops were hit by a hurricane in Honduras. Despite this setback he quickly negotiated with local unions, offering a better pay and benefits package than union leaders had expected. The losses United Brands suffered in bananas, Black hoped, would be made up for by improved sales of lettuce through its subsidiary Inter Harvest. But here, too, Black’s previously successful business tactics faltered. A poor choice of lettuce transportation led to rotten vegetables and a union dispute in California with the Cesar Chavez-led United Farm Workers.
United Brands was able to reach an agreement with Chavez, avoiding a potentially devastating boycott, but the dispute hit both its profits and reputation. Black not only negotiated with Chavez, but came to see him as a friend. Union disputes in Ottumwa, Iowa, where one of Morrell’s most important plants operated, led to firings and, eventually, its closure. Morrell strayed from the model of social responsibility that Black had promoted in Honduras and California, abandoning an entire community which relied on it. Meanwhile, the oil crisis of 1973, the following recession, the imposition of export taxes by the Union of Banana Exporting Countries and further hurricanes led United Brands into such an uncomfortable position that Black authorised a ‘personal payment’ – a bribe – to the president of Honduras, Oswaldo López Arellano, in exchange for reduced taxes. Afflicted by insomnia, Black became depressed and paranoid. He lost trust in his advisors and friends, and they lost trust in him. His control over United Brands slipped away as it became apparent that his goal of showcasing a socially responsible model for other corporate executives to follow was not working.
Eli and the Octopus focuses on one individual to tell a story that is emblematic of an era. In this story, readers learn about Eli Black, but we learn more about migration, divisions within American Judaism, meatpacking, lettuce transportation, unions, sunglasses production, and mergers and conglomerates. After the first chapter, we learn frustratingly little about Black himself. When the narrative zooms in on Black, it falls into speculative language: he might have, he must have, he surely. This is not a criticism of García, but rather a characteristic of the approach. No biographer can know what happened inside their subject’s head.
Despite Black’s suicide in 1975 serving as a narrative hook, it is unfortunate that the book is framed around it. We are presented with it in the prologue and again in the epilogue as the book’s organising riddle, answered in the end as a result of the inability to reconcile Black’s ethical business model with business itself. This works neatly as a narrative structure (Black dies along with his ethical business model). But, as anyone who has ever grappled with losing someone to suicide knows, suicide doesn’t make sense. It is often the least sensical option. Black had already drastically changed his career trajectory once before. He could have remodelled himself again. Instead, he took the path that made the least amount of sense, toward an end that served no one. It is not enough to simply point to a business failure.
It is important that we recognise the senselessness of Eli Black’s ending, instead of trying to make it comply with clear logic.But in the unlikely event that there is a CEO of a multinational corporation reading these words: don’t jump; resign and join a labour movement instead.
Eli and the Octopus: The CEO Who Tried to Reform One of the World’s Most Notorious Corporations
Harvard University Press, 280pp, £24.99
Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)
Courtney J. Campbell is the author of Region Out of Place: The Brazilian Northeast and the World (1924-1968) (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2022).