The People’s Banker

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He walked the streets schmoozing in Italian to win customers for what would become the Bank of America.

But the following year his father-inlaw died intestate, and the family asked Giannini to handle the estate, which amounted to about five hundred thousand dollars. Giannini took over his father-in-law’s seat on the board of the Columbus Savings and Loan Society, a small bank in North Beach, San Francisco’s Little Italy. He quickly noticed that a competitor, the Italian-American Bank, was growing rapidly by catering to small borrowers.

When the board of directors refused to go after this business—which very few banks at that time regarded as worth pursuing at all—he along with five other directors resigned. They and others, including Giannini’s stepfather, founded the Bank of Italy. Capitalized at three hundred thousand dollars, it opened in 1904 in a converted saloon.

From the first the Bank of Italy was what today is called a full-service bank, providing both savings and commercial checking accounts, while encouraging small loans, some as small as $25. Giannini realized that if he was to enlarge his loan business, he would have to enlarge his deposits. To do so, he used the same tactics he had employed so successfully buying fruits and vegetables. He walked the streets of North Beach, schmoozed with recent immigrants in his fluent Italian, and persuaded them to move their small savings from the mattress to his bank. It worked. In December 1904 loans amounted to $178,400 and deposits to $134,413. One year later the figures were $883,522 and $703,024.

The rapid increases in deposits and loans continued until the morning of April 18, 1906, when Giannini, asleep in his suburban San Mateo house, was thrown out of bed by the San Francisco earthquake. After making sure his family was safe (his wife was expecting their eighth child), he set out for San Francisco. He found a city in ruins and the fire that was to consume much that survived the quake heading toward his bank. He managed to commandeer two wagons and load them up with the bank’s furniture, records, and, most important, money. Knowing that looters were about, he piled crates of oranges on top and made it safely back to San Mateo. The money smelled of orange juice for weeks after.

The next day Giannini returned to find his bank a charred ruin, as, indeed, was most of North Beach. Also in ruins was San Francisco’s banking industry. The governor had declared a bank holiday, and many bankers expected it to last weeks. But Giannini, who instinctively understood the immense power of symbolism, put a notice in the San Francisco Chronicle , set a desk out on the sidewalk at the Washington Street wharf with a bag of gold prominently displayed, and posted a banner announcing this to be the Bank of Italy’s temporary quarters.

If Giannini reacted brilliantly to that earthquake, he actually anticipated the next one—the financial earthquake called the Panic of 1907. Seeing it coming, he had been quietly hoarding gold, and when the crisis hit, he let it be known that he was ready and able to pay gold to all who wanted to withdraw their money. As a result, of course, few demanded their money. “Mr. Giannini and his Bank of Italy,” reported a San Francisco newspaper, “were once again the talk of San Francisco.”

In 1909 California adopted a law that allowed banks to branch throughout the state as long as the state superintendent of banks agreed that it was in the public interest. With a reputation no money could buy, there was no one better placed to take advantage of this opportunity to create a banking empire than A. P. Giannini. In less than ten years the Bank of Italy had twenty-four branches throughout California and was the fourth-largest bank in the state. By the end of the 1920s, with the name changed to the Bank of America National Trust and Savings Association, it was one of the largest banks in the country.

Giannini withdrew from day-to-day management in the 1920s, but in 1932, when the new management tried to sell off some branches in response to the onset of the Great Depression, he waged a successful proxy fight to regain control. Once more running the show, he got his beloved bank through the banking crisis of March 1933 unscathed and undiminished. Indeed it was once more poised for expansion and doubled in assets in the next six years.

When Giannini died, in 1949, true to his beliefs, expressed when he had “retired” at thirty-one, he left no great fortune, only about five hundred thousand dollars. What he did leave behind was what was then, and for many years afterward, the largest privately held bank in the world, a bank that had grown to greatness on the once-radical notion of serving ordinary citizens.