Giannini, Amadeo Peter

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Widely recognized as the father of modern banking, A.P. Giannini (18701949) built the world's largest privately held bank, the Bank of America, by lending to ordinary citizens solely on "a man's face and signature." He pioneered mortgages for working class homeowners and loaned as much as $300 or as little as $10 to anyone with a job. His personality and career were the inspiration for the character George Bailey in the film, It's a Wonderful Life.

Born to a poor immigrant Italian family in San Jose, California, in 1870, Giannini left school at age thirteen. His father, a truck farmer, had been murdered in a dispute with a worker over $2 in wages when Giannini was seven. Giannini's first job was as a fruit and vegetable broker, working on commission for his stepfather. At age fifteen he was driving through the California valleys and successfully competing with veteran buyers for farm produce. The boy was exceptionally ambitious and hard working. By carrying a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese with him, for example, Giannini said he saved time that might otherwise have been spent stopping for meals. He became a partner in his stepfather's food brokerage firm when he was only nineteen years old.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Giannini, then thirty-one, decided to retire as a food broker and sold his half-share of the fruit and vegetable business to a group of employees for $100,000. When his father-inlaw died the following year Giannini took his place on the board of directors of the Columbus Savings and Loan Society in San Francisco. In 1904, frustrated by the bank's unwillingness to lend to small borrowers, he and a group of other directors founded a new bank, the Bank of Italy, with a capitalization of $300,000.

The bank's immediate success was almost entirely due to Giannini's unorthodox focus on the ordinary wage earner. He made loans to small farmers and fishermen, and even went door to door in the North Beach neighborhood, explaining how banking could help immigrant families realize their dreams. When the San Francisco earthquake devastated the city in 1906, Giannini commandeered a wagon and two horses and concealed nearly $2 million of the bank's gold and securities under a blanket of oranges. Two days later, as more traditional bankers declared a bank holiday for the duration of the emergency, he set up a temporary office on a wharf and began to lend money to anyone who needed it to rebuild.

The Bank of Italy continued to thrive during the first decades of the century. Bankrolling the movie industry at a time when the success of filmmaking was not assured, Giannini funded thousands of films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Gone with the Wind. He was also instrumental in helping the California wine industry get its start and, in the worst years of the Great Depression, financed construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In 1909 California adopted a law that allowed banks to open branches throughout the state. In less than ten years the Bank of Italy had opened 24 branches. By 1930, when its name was changed to Bank of America, the bank was one of the largest in the country. When Giannini died in 1949, his bank had $6 billion in assets, 522 branches, and was the largest commercial bank in the world.

Giannini's personal estate, however, was a modest one. He established two foundations and directed his fortune to them and to other charities. Although he could have been many times a millionaire, he never wanted to be a rich man. He believed that great wealth would force him to lose touch with those he served. "No man actually owns a fortune," he is reported to have said. "It owns him."

See also: Great Depression


Dana, Julian. A. P. Giannini, Giant in the West. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1947.

Gordon, John Steele. "The People's Banker." American Heritage. September, 1998.

Kadlec, Daniel. "America's Banker: A. P. Giannini." Time. December 7, 1998.

Radin, Harvey. "Bank of America Founder A. P. Gianinni Named One of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century." Press Release, "Bank of America." December 2, 1998.