Zemurray emigrated to Alabama shortly after arriving in America, first to Selma, where he worked in his uncle’s store, and shortly thereafter to Mobile. He laid eyes on his first banana on the Mobile docks in 1893, and was quick to carve out a niche for himself in the field peddling “ripes”: bananas that were days from expiring, which the bigger companies like United Fruit considered worthless. Zemurray was both highly aggressive and observant in plying his trade – he was fond of quoting “There is no problem you can’t solve if you understand your business from A to Z” – and by the time he was 21, he was selling nearly 600,000 bananas a year and was essentially a millionaire.
His labors came to the attention of Andrew Preston, the president of United Fruit, who came to Mobile in 1903 and met with Zemurray, caling him "a risk taker ... thinker and a doer.” Preston signed a contract with Zemurray giving the young “fruit jobber” the rights to United Fruit’s ripes. At this point Cohen likens Zemurray to “a bike racer riding in the windbreak of a semitruck – the semitruck being United Fruit” and adds that, “If he had stopped there, his would have been a great success story.”