The poignant rise and fall of an idealistic immigrant who, as CEO of a major conglomerate, tried to change the way America did business before he himself was swallowed up by corporate corruption.
At 8 a.m. on February 3, 1975, Eli Black leapt to his death from the 44th floor of Manhattan’s Pan Am building. The immigrant-turned-CEO of United Brands—formerly United Fruit, now Chiquita—Black seemed an embodiment of the American dream. United Brands was transformed under his leadership—from the “octopus,” a nickname that captured the corrupt power the company had held over Latin American governments, to “the most socially conscious company in the hemisphere,” according to a well-placed commentator. How did it all go wrong?
Eli and the Octopus traces the rise and fall of an enigmatic business leader and his influence on the nascent project of corporate social responsibility. Born Menashe Elihu Blachowitz in Lublin, Poland, Black arrived in New York at the age of three and became a rabbi before entering the business world. Driven by the moral tenets of his faith, he charted a new course in industries known for poor treatment of workers, partnering with labor leaders like Cesar Chavez to improve conditions. But risky investments, economic recession, and a costly wave of natural disasters led Black away from the path of reform and toward corrupt backroom dealing.
Now, two decades after Google’s embrace of “Don’t be evil” as its unofficial motto, debates about “ethical capitalism” are more heated than ever. Matt Garcia presents an unvarnished portrait of Black’s complicated legacy. Exploring the limits of corporate social responsibility on American life, Eli and the Octopus offers pointed lessons for those who hope to do good while doing business.
An engaging chronicle of an idealistic but flawed businessman as well as a dissection of the postwar merger craze with no small relevance to today.
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.
Garcia’s portrayal of Black is sympathetic and somewhat rueful, finding pathos in the disconnect between Garcia’s ‘good intentions’ and the inevitability that the ‘imperatives of turning a profit and serving investors’ would outweigh ‘any virtuous impulse.’ The result is a plaintive study of the challenges of trying to change a system from within.
Eli and the Octopus is a deeply informed study of one of the most enigmatic figures to arise in the Mad Men era of merger mania and conglomerate-building. Beyond its inherent tragedy, this story adds richly to our understanding of how corporate America became what it is today.
Piecing together the Shakespearean saga of rabbi-turned-business tycoon Eli Black, Matt Garcia offers a compelling, cautionary tale on the limits of corporate social responsibility. The unvarnished—but not unsympathetic—portrait is a history with great current relevance.
A gripping story worth telling. In this deeply researched book, Garcia weaves together American Jewish history, American business history, and American labor history, all through the many lives of a remarkable and ultimately tragic individual.
A marvelous book that embodies the inherent tension between our religious and ethical senses and the compromised and corrupt business of our daily lives. Eli Black's rise and fall is but an exaggerated illumination of the human condition.
In this riveting tale of United Fruit's Eli Black, Garcia walks right into the center of business history, adds union power into the mix, and shows the impossibility of pursuing both corporate profits and social responsibility. Black wanted to believe that his private machinations were for the public good, in keeping with his Jewish faith. But meatpacking workers in the Midwest, the United Farm Workers in California, and banana workers in Honduras—all of which Garcia links in a seamless narrative—paid the price for Black's market-driven policies. Eli and the Octopus is a powerful and cautionary tale of the true nature of corporate strategy, however well-meaning the outrageously wealthy who pursue it.
A revelatory exploration of Eli Black and his struggle to remake modern business into a vehicle for positive social change. In a moment of growing inequality and corporate power, Eli and the Octopus could not be more timely or more important.
- 280 pages
- 1 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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