When the sun sank over San Francisco on April 18th 1906 most people were wondering if light would ever return to their lives. At 5:12 a.m. that morning residents felt a shock shortly before their world came crumbling down. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake crushed the city with a magnitude of 7.9 that flattened buildings, uprooted roads, and caused uncontrollable fires that raged freely due to broken water mains leaving the fire department with few options to retaliate.
The city would rebuild, but to do so people needed funding. Their first steps to a new life were taken toward the neighborhood of North Beach.
Amadeo Pietro “A.P” Giannini was born on May 6th 1870 in San Jose, California. His father Luigi was an Italian immigrant, lured to the states by the California Gold Rush in 1849 before returning to his home country in order to marry Virginia Demartini. The pair eventually returned to California and in 1872 Luigi bought a farm to grow fruits and vegetables launching his career in produce.
The growing and selling of produce was a family business for Luigi, Virginia, and their two children but they were hit by an unexpected blow when Luigi was shot and killed by one of his employees over a wages dispute. The business continued under the helm of Virginia and her children but in 1880 Virginia married Lorenzo Scatena officially rebranding their family business as L. Scatena & Co.
Amadeo Giannini grew to be successful in the family business and beyond working as a produce broker, commission merchant, and produce dealer for farms in the Santa Clara Valley region. At the age of thirty-one he left the produce industry and became director of the Columbus Savings & Loan, a business his late father-in-law owned an interest in. Banking was a new career for Giannini but he quickly saw underutilized opportunities to serve the booming immigrant population of San Francisco. Banks at the time only catered to big businesses and the wealthy, turning a blind eye to those who did not have a bank and depended on themselves to protect their savings. The other bank directors did not agree with Giannini’s ideas to reach out to the immigrant population and in frustration Giannini left the company. If this bank would not help those who needed it most, he would do it himself.
In the summer of 1904 Giannini and five other Italian businessmen opened the Bank of Italy inside a single-room converted saloon, even hiring a former bartender as a teller. From the beginning Giannini’s practices were drastically unorthodox. Unlike other banks who shunned reaching out to find new clients Giannini did everything possible to reach out to the people who had never had a bank or who had been turned down due to big bank egos. He walked door-to-door and approached people in the street offering savings accounts, loans as low as $25, mortgages, credit, and an opportunity to earn interest on savings. He wanted his bank to be for the hardworking “little fellow”, stating that he judged people not by their wealth, but by their character. Along the way he interacted deeply with the people, explaining in full how banking works, the benefits of his bank, and encouraging people that banking with gold and silver was far safer than keeping their hard-earned money unprotected in their own homes. Among his first clients were immigrants, the poor, farmers, small businesses, women, and minorities. Within the first year deposits reached what would equate to nearly ninety million dollars today.
When the earthquake hit San Francisco on that early April morning Giannini knew his single-room bank was holding the financial lives of too many people to risk any damage. Using a garbage cart from Scatena & Co. he loaded up what would amount to just under two million dollars today, covered it in orange crates, and navigated the streets that were crumbling into chaos and quickly falling prey to not only the natural disaster but also to looters and thieves. Giannini made it back to his home outside the city and until the danger dissipated he hid the entire financial foundation of San Francisco inside his fireplace.
The level of destruction left behind by the earthquake was unimaginable. The city was flattened, torn apart at the seams, and scorched leaving people wondering how they would ever return to anything resembling normal. People lost everything but in order to take a step in any direction they would need their money. The problem was that they could not get to it. The large metal bank vaults were turned into mini infernos from the fires and even though the money inside may have made it through intact, they could not be safely opened without risking the contents inside. The cooling process could take weeks. As a result, almost every large bank in San Francisco was forced to shut down with their futures in limbo. The only banker that has access to his client’s funds was Giannini. Within days after the earthquake Giannini was in the North Beach neighborhood with a plank of wood sitting across two barrels taking deposits and giving out rebuilding loans signed for with a handshake. The Bank of Italy, the bank for the “little fellow”, was open for business.
Aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake.
The San Francisco Earthquake was not the only upheaval that Giannini was able to navigate through due to his unusual business practices, instinct, and absolute faith in the common man. When the financial crisis of the Panic of 1907 hit the country the Bank of Italy patrons were protected. Months before the Panic Giannini had been hearing about possible issues at the New York Stock Exchange and he began campaigning for people to make deposits while working toward increase his gold reserves. When the stock exchange fell nearly 50% in October 1907 the ripple effect hit banks across the country hard but Giannini’s foresight and planning meant that all the assets in his bank were safe. While other banks around the country were forced to place limits on banking or close down, his clients were safe and were able to continue on as usual.
Giannini founded his bank to give opportunities to people and in 1909 the pool of potential clients became infinitely deep when California passed laws allowing the establishment of bank branches. The first branch of the Bank of Italy opened in San Jose, California in October 1909 and within a decade it became the first statewide branch banking system in the United States with twenty-four branches possessing more than ninety-three million dollars in assets. After several years of acquiring and consolidating, in 1928 Giannini merged his bank with Bank of America and other bank branches to create what would become the largest banking institution in the country. On November 3, 1930 the Bank of Italy was officially renamed Bank of America National Trust and Savings Association, today known as simply Bank of America.
Giannini had success and wealth that few people could imagine but for the produce manager turned banking mogul this just meant he could help on a grander scale than ever before. With two barrels and a wooden plank he helped rebuild San Francisco and his further efforts continued to mold the state of California. In 1923 the place now considered the home of Hollywood was still new to the entertainment industry with less than two decades of filmmaking under its belt. It was in this year that Giannini’s banks created a motion picture loan division to help encourage the new industry’s growth. The loans given out by his banks did more that encourage, it helped to ignite the film industry in California with backing going toward hundreds of films. Funding also went to Charlie Chaplin, Douglass Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith in order to solidify the United Artists Corporation which is still operating today. In 1937 Bank of America was approached for another loan, this one for 1.7 million in order to finish production on a groundbreaking film. The film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first ever full-length animated feature. Armed with the funding needed to complete the endeavor, Walt Disney was able to finish Snow White and present it to the world on February 4th 1938. Bank of America went on to finance the production of Bambi, Cinderella, Dumbo, Fantasia, Peter Pan, and Pinocchio. Decades later Bank of America also financed the construction of Disneyland and Disney World.
The scene outside the Carthy Circle Theater at the premier of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Another one of A.P. Giannini’s contributions to California was one that literally brought two parts of the state together. In the 1920s the only way to get from Marin County to San Francisco was to take a ferry across the San Francisco Bay. An engineer named Joseph Strauss saw the imminent problems with only relying on a waterway connection and he developed a plan for a suspension bridge that would stretch across the bay linking Marin and San Francisco. Unfortunately, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was a very recent memory and many people did not have faith that the extravagant (and expensive) plan would work. Strauss faced multiple lawsuits from skeptics and special interest groups that drained his finances. Strauss approached Giannini, telling him that he was the last hope for the construction of the bridge. Giannini had one question for Strauss, how long would this bridge stand? Strauss’s answer was “Forever!” and it was enough of an answer for Giannini to agree to fund the construction of what he considered to be a crucial addition to the state of California. Construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began in January 1933 and it was completed and opened on May 27th, 1937.
Opening day of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27th 1937.
The list of causes funded and founded by A.P. Giannini is extensive and includes the foundation of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, rebuilding Fiat factories lost in Italy during WWII, providing capital to William Hewlett and David Packard to help form Hewlett-Packard, and on his 75th birthday he created and endowed the A. P. Giannini Foundation with a personal gift of nearly $500,000 to support research into the discovery and treatment of human diseases. If he chose to, he could have been a billionaire but that was a title that he avoided at all costs, working without pay and donating yearly bonuses to causes he believed in. Giannini had a distaste for extreme wealth and believed it would only lead to him becoming out of touch and unable to help people. “Money itch is a bad thing,” he once commented, “I never had that trouble.”
When A.P. Giannini died on June 3rd 1949 his estate was worth $500,000, a fraction of what it could have been, and definitely more than he wanted it to be.
A.P. Giannini grew into a force of change in not only his home state, but across the world. He rebuilt cities, sheltered his clients through multiple financial storms, and went on to have a hand in pouring the foundations of numerous parts of daily life today including banking, films, amusement parks, medical research, landmarks, and wine produced in California, just to name a few.
There are few entrepreneurs with his level of success and involvement, let alone in so many fields. From banking on barrels in the earthquake ravaged streets of San Francisco to giving footing to Disney and establishing foundations dedicated to defeating disease, A.P. Giannini became a giant…without ever forgetting the “little fellow”.