Andrew Preston was born in Beverly, Massachusetts. During his youth, he briefly worked in shoe manufacturing but he later switched his interests to a fruit and produce commission firm in Boston, in partnership with Augustus Williams. In 1870, he sold a few bunches of bananas which had been brought to Boston by Captain Lorenzo D. Baker, and thereafter disposed of others that arrived at irregular intervals. In 1882, Preston established a small fruit commission business on his own and soon had the plan of creating an importing enterprise. Unable to finance the project by himself, he got nine other men to invest $2,000 each, establishing the Boston Fruit Company with a capital of $20,000. The company was incorporated in 1887 with a capital of $500,000, with Preston as the general manager of the firm. The Boston Fruit Company did not pay dividens during the first few years and all the profits were re-invested. In 1899, the company was merged into the United Fruit Company, of which Preston was president until his death, in 1924.
During the 1890s Preston was known for creating a refrigerated distribution network to sell bananas in the national market. With the United Fruit he developed, in addition to its distribution system, a fleet of refrigerated steamers and a vast acreage of plantations in the Caribbean and Central America. After this the banana trade business developed into an industry of great size. The company gained control of vast areas of tropical growing regions, brought all this under cultivation, and built an extensive and carefully controlled means of rail and water transportation. Finally, it had an organized system of coordinated agencies that allowed the fruit to get the market expeditiously.
In 1872 no more than 500,000 bunches of bananas were imported into the United States, but by the time of Preston's death, in 1924, the United Fruit Company alone imported 35,000,000 bunches. In 1924 the company had 20,000 sockholders and was capitalized at $100 million. It had 67,000 employees, owned 1,626,000 acres of land, and operated a fleet of 80 steamships. These ships furnished regular passenger, mail, and freight service between the Atlantic ports, the West Indies, and South America. It directly served nine countries in the Western Hemisphere, and played an important role in the commerce of 23 others. It established and maintained hotels for its employees, churches, hospitals, schools, laundries, ice plants, bakeries, electrical light companies, water works, and sewerage systems. It had 1,500 lines of railroads, 700 miles of tramways, and 3,500 miles of telegraph and telephone lines. The selling agent for United Fruit was the Fruit Dispatch Company, a subsidiary with 49 branches in the US and Canada. It also controlled the British subsidiary Elders and Fyffes, Ltd. which had agencies in Paris, Lille, Barcelona, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and other European cities.
United Fruit owned some 89,000 acres of sugar cane land in Cuba, as well as undeveloped land in that country, along with 340 miles of railroads and two large sugar mills. Its sugar vessels transported the company's raw sugar directly to its subsidiary, The Revere Sugar Reifinery at Charleston, Massachusetts. The Revere plant had a daily capacity of 4,000 barrels of refined sugar, and owned and operated a modern cooperage plant. United Fruit also had businesses in cacao, cacao nuts, and other tropical goods. This virtual corporate empire had gained its status under the leadership of Preston.
Preston was the president of all of the subsidiaries of United Fruit, and was also president of the First National Bank of Boston, First National Corporation of Boston, E.R Grabow Company, National Surety Company, and U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. Preston married Frances E. Gulbertson of Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1869 and had one daughter.
Bibliography: INGHAM, John N. (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983)
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