The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
President Donald Trump held a special event in the White House Rose Garden in July. The occasion was an executive order creating something called the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative. During the ceremony, the president announced the appointment of several politicians and business leaders to a committee tasked with “improv[ing] Hispanic Americans’ access to educational and economic opportunity.” Among these designated luminaries was Bob Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods.
Bob is the third generation of Unanues to helm Goya, a family-owned brand that sells things like beans, rice, sauces, and seasonings. Unanue mostly used his White House speech to announce that he was donating a million cans of Goya chickpeas to various food banks around the country. But midway through his remarks, he raised his hand and gestured toward the president, and he took the opportunity to toss in this fateful aside:
Today, it gives me great honor, and by the way, we’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder. And that’s what my grandfather did. He came to this country to build, to grow, to prosper. And so we have an incredible builder, and we pray. We pray for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country, that we will continue to prosper and to grow.
It was just a brief detour amid a snooze of a speech that would otherwise have gotten no media attention, but it set off a firestorm. By the next day, CNN was reporting on it as a “developing story.” That CNN segment also featured commentator Ana Navarro, who’s accused Bob Unanue of “acting as a prop for a guy who puts brown children in cages.” “I think Goya is a great family immigrant story,” she said. “I’ve known them to be good corporate citizens. But this really strikes at a wound. This is pouring salt into the wound of a Latino community that is his consumer base, that is most of his customers.”
What happens when a CEO endangers his own brand? As it faces backlash and boycotts, can this family-held company keep things in the family, or were those Rose Garden remarks enough to lose Unanue the job he was born into?
In the past year, there have been two separate attempts to buy Goya Foods away from Bob Unanue and his family. Josh Kosman, the mergers reporter for the New York Post, covered both buyout efforts, and he thinks they both boil down to one thing: “Wall Street would say you don’t run a company like the way Bob has run Goya.”
On Bob Unanue’s watch, Goya has done OK. But there are Wall Street types who think it could grow much faster. They’d like to buy the company and maybe take it public. They tell small-time Bob and his family to hit the road. And then, like Wall Street types usually do, they bring in some new bean counters, if you will, who could cut costs, probably lay off workers, goose the profits, and expand internationally. The first bid to buy Goya came last fall from the Carlyle Group, one of the biggest private equity firms in the world. “Carlyle was looking to buy about 70 percent of Goya,” Kosman says. “That would have meant Bob loses his job. They did not want Bob running the company.”
A buyout would make the Unanues even richer than they are now. But after waffling for a while, Goya killed the sale, according to Josh’s sources, because a faction of the family—and in particular Bob—wasn’t ready to give up day-to-day control. A second buyout effort came just this summer from an investment bank called BDT Capital Partners. Again, a buyout would have removed Bob Unanue from his role as CEO of Goya. The many members of the extended Unanue family took a vote, and they tentatively approved a sale that would bring them a huge windfall.
Kosman picks up the story from there: “Then Bob, who was already invited to the White House, surprises everybody and makes his public announcement in the Rose Garden—you know, we are so lucky to have President Trump. People whom I’ve spoken to, who have direct knowledge of the situation, think Bob is not an idiot. Bob knew, when he said that, it was going to cause a kerfuffle. So he was doing it essentially to shake things up, possibly to save his job. And it kind of worked.”
It worked, according to Josh’s sources, because it put the future of Goya in doubt. With one seemingly off-the-cuff remark, Unanue made the brand toxic to some of its most loyal customers, and sure enough, the deal fell through. A controversy like this makes it harder to sell the company because, Kosman says, “now you can’t predict what’ll happen. Do you necessarily, as a buyer, want to be associated with a brand that is hated? You might not want to be associated with a brand like that. I would imagine five years from today, however Goya does, we’re going to remember this moment that Bob praised the president, and Goya, to a degree, will be identified with that.”
So in this scenario, Unanue was willing to put in peril the future earnings of Goya in order to keep his job. “That’s the suspicion,” Kosman says. “Hard to know for sure, but that’s the speculation. And it’s not from outsiders—it’s from insiders.”
What Kosman’s sources are theorizing is that Unanue is attempting a very delicate bank shot. He’s betting that he can damage Goya’s reputation just enough to kill the sale and save his job and keep the company in family control, but not damage Goya so much that the brand is permanently ruined. It’s a wild combination of boardroom politics, family dysfunction, and culture war.
Bob Unanue is already rich, so he doesn’t need the money from a sale. Maybe he’s got too much pride to let the company his grandfather founded fall out of the family’s hands. Maybe he’s got too much ego to give up his own spot at the top of the org chart. Or maybe he just wanted to prove it’s his company and he can say whatever he wants. It seems like his feelings for Trump are at least in part genuine. Unanue went on Fox not long ago to talk about how pleased he is with the president’s pro-business agenda.
Some of Unanue’s motivations might even be selfless. Goya supports a lot of Latino charities and has been a solid corporate citizen in lots of ways. Letting Goya go to a private equity firm or investment bank might mean less priority on doing those sorts of good deeds.
It might also mean lots of layoffs, as new investors streamline the operation. By all reports, Unanue sees Goya’s employees as part of a big family. The thing is, he might’ve put that family in jeopardy. His White House comments earned Goya an endorsement from Trump and a couple of Trump children, but it remains to be seen whether the brand will win long-term business from hardcore Trump supporters. Are those folks buying a lot of Sazón and adobo? Meanwhile, some of Goya’s most reliable customers immediately launched a boycott of the company’s products.