Eli M. Black

E. M. Black (April 9, 1921 – February 3, 1975) was a Polish-born American businessman. He controlled the United Brands Company. His son Leon Black is a founding member of private equity firm Apollo Management.

Early life and education

Born Elihu Menashe Blachowitz in Poland, he immigrated to the United States as a child. He attended Yeshiva University, and graduated at the top of his class in 1940. He also received training to be an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and served as the rabbi of a congregation in Woodmere, New York for three and a half years prior to entering business.

Business career

His business career began in investment banking with Lehman Brothers, and then the American Securities Corporation, where he worked on financing for the American Seal-Kap Company, a company that made caps for milk bottles. He was hired to be their chairman and chief executive officer in 1954. Black renamed the company AMK, after its ticker symbol, and turned it into a vehicle for acquisitions; joining the conglomerate bandwagon of the 1960s. Among his many takeovers was the John Morrell & Co. meatpacking company. AMK joined the nation’s top 500 companies in 1967. In September 1968, he was hired to take a run at United Fruit by the brokerage firm of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.

In 1970 AMK merged with United Fruit Company, and adopted the name United Brands. Black became chairman, president, and CEO. At that time, United Fruit was importing about a third of all the bananas sold in the USA and owned the Chiquita banana brand. But Black soon discovered that United Fruit had far less capital than he had believed. The company soon became crippled with debt. The company’s losses were exacerbated by Hurricane Fifi in 1974, which destroyed many of its banana plantations in Honduras. In 1974, United Brands reported losses of $40 million for the first three quarters of the year. Black struggled to keep the company solvent, and in December United Brands announced that it was selling its interest in Foster Grant, Inc. for $70 million.

Personal life and death

Black was married to artist Shirley Lubell. They had two children: daughter Judy Black Nadler and son Leon Black, founding member of private equity firm Apollo Management.

In 1975, the Securities and Exchange Commission uncovered a $2.5 million bribe that Black offered to Honduran president Oswaldo López Arellano in order to obtain a reduction of taxes on banana exports. A few weeks before the scandal broke, on February 3, 1975, Black went to his office on the forty-fourth floor of the Pan Am Building in Manhattan. At about 8:00 a.m., he broke the window with his briefcase and jumped to his death, landing on the northbound ramp of Park Avenue beside motorists.

He was remembered favorably by a number of prominent people, including Senator Abraham Ribicoff and Amyas Ames, the chairman of Lincoln Center. United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez said that his career was proof that management could work with farm labor “for the betterment of all.” Black served as a trustee of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The American Jewish Committee, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, Babson College, the Jewish Guild for the Blind, and the Jewish Museum. He had also served as chairman of the Commentary Magazine publication committee.

After Black’s death, Seymour Milstein and Paul Milstein bought into United Fruit.

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