Amadeo Peter Giannini (San Jose, 1870 – 1949) was a famous American banker. His parents were Italian immigrants who came from Favale di Malvaro near Genoa in the region of Luguria.
The father, Giovanni, emigrated to pursue the California Gold Rush in 1849. In 1872 he bought a farm where he grew fruits and vegetables to sell. After Giovanni died, the mother, the stepfather, and young Amadeo began to run the business operations. Giannini then became a very successful produce broker.
Amadeo married Clorinda Cuneo, the daughter of a real estate magnate. In 1892, at the age of 31, he retired from the produce business to administer the estate and the affairs of his father-in-law. One of these was the Columbus Savings & Loan. Giannini became a director of the bank.
In those times, banks served only the rich. Giannini believed that there was an opportunity to serve the growing immigrant population that did not have a bank. The other bank directors did not agree. So Amadeo left that bank and began one of his own.
Giannini opened the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. Deposits the first day amounted to $8,780. In a year, the deposits had grown to more than $700,000. The first challenge for the bank was to survive the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Giannini immediately transferred the money from the bank to his home in San Mateo. The money was hidden under rotten fruit and vegetables in a horse-drawn garbage wagon to protect it from theft. The earthquake and subsequent fires in three days destroyed 50,000 private residences, besides offices, hotels, and public buildings. The other banks in the city could not open their vaults for many months for fear that the heat would burn the money.
In the meantime, Giannini took a table, placed it in the middle of the crowds of displaced people, and put a sign on the table: Bank of Italy: Open for Business. He began to loan money for reconstruction. He had been a banker for only 4 years and his clients were mostly humble artisans and tradesmen of Italian origin who couldn’t find credit in any other bank. The San Francisco earthquake offered the opportunity to extend trust to others outside of the Italian community who were also of limited means. It is said that through his handshake he could tell by the callouses on his clients’ hands if they were hard workers.
His courage paid off. A large part of the reconstruction of San Francisco was financed through him. Then from 1916 he opened other bank branches: little by little he expanded throughout California. Those who were envious of his success, or perhaps prejudiced, said that Giannini “ran the Pope’s bank.”
In Los Angeles, Giannini helped the film industry; he financed the first films of Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, and Frank Capra, with whom he forged a strong friendship. In fact, in the film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the protagonist George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is modelled after Amadeo Giannini…but with a name more “American” for those times.
In the 1920s, he bought the Bank of America, and the two banks merged. In 1927 he changed the name to Bank of America. Giannini remained the chairman until his retirement in 1945, at which time it was the largest bank in America.
The banker to the humble became the banker for everyone. Today Amadeo Giannini is known for having taught people who did not speak English how to save money—not under a mattress, but in a bank where an investment–regardless of size–would earn interest. He loaned money to bakers, fishermen, farmers, grocers, and others on the basis of their character.
Giannini revolutionized the banking industry. He was the first to conceive of the bank as a service for everyone. He was the first banker to offer home mortgages, car loans, and installment credit. He was also very generous with his employees and instituted profit-sharing plans to earn their loyalty. He was a liberal in a very conservative business.
Giannini died in 1949. He could have accumulated in enormous fortune in his life, but he wasn’t interested in his own wealth: “I have no desire to be rich. Nobody possesses a fortune; it possesses him.” Instead, he used the major part of his money to finance scholarships and to support research in the fields of medicine and agriculture.
Today in downtown Los Angeles there is a grand and imposing structure at Olive and 7th Streets that had been the Bank of Italy. It has 12 floors, Doric columns, and marble floors. Today it is being renovated with offices, restaurants, a hotel, shopping, and even a pool on the roof. In San Francisco the large plaza of the Bank of America is named after him. The American postal service honored him in 1973 with his portrait on a stamp. And Time magazine described Giannini as one of the “builders and titans” of the 20th century.