America's Banker: A.P. GIANNINI

Anyone with a bank account owes a debt to a produce seller who refused to say no

  • Like a lot of folks in the San Francisco area, Amadeo Peter Giannini was thrown from his bed in the wee hours of April 18, 1906, when the Great Quake shook parts of the city to rubble. He hurriedly dressed and hitched a team of horses to a borrowed produce wagon and headed into town--to the Bank of Italy, which he had founded two years earlier. Sifting through the ruins, he discreetly loaded $2 million in gold, coins and securities onto the wagon bed, covered the bank's resources with a layer of vegetables and headed home.

    In the days after the disaster, the man known as A.P. broke ranks with his fellow bankers, many of whom wanted area banks to remain shut to sort out the damage. Giannini quickly set up shop on the docks near San Francisco's North Beach. With a wooden plank straddling two barrels for a desk, he began to extend credit "on a face and a signature" to small businesses and individuals in need of money to rebuild their lives. His actions spurred the city's redevelopment.

    That would have been legacy enough for most people. But Giannini's mark extends far beyond San Francisco, where his dogged determination and unusual focus on "the little people" helped build what was at his death the largest bank in the country, Bank of America, with assets of $5 billion. (It's now No. 2, with assets of $572 billion, behind Citigroup's $751 billion.)

    Most bank customers today take for granted the things Giannini pioneered, including home mortgages, auto loans and other installment credit. Heck, most of us take banks for granted. But they didn't exist, at least not for working stiffs, until Giannini came along.

    A.P. was also the architect of what has become nationwide banking in the 1990s--although parochial interests prevented him from realizing it in his lifetime. His great vision was that a bank doing business in all parts of a state or the nation would be less vulnerable to any one region's difficulties. It would therefore be strong enough to lend to troubled communities when they were most in need.

    That same model is applied today in international banking. And his vision has been playing out on a national scale for the past 20 years. Fittingly, the first bank in the U.S. to have branches coast to coast is that same Bank of America, which accomplished the feat just this year through its $48 billion merger with NationsBank of Charlotte, N.C.

    A.P. Giannini was born in San Jose, Calif., in 1870, the son of immigrants from Genoa, Italy. His father, a farmer, died in a fight over a dollar when A.P. was seven. His mother later married Lorenzo Scatena, a teamster who went into the produce business. Young A.P. left school at 14 to assist him, and by 19 he was a partner in a thriving enterprise, built largely on his reputation for integrity. At 31 he announced that he would sell his half-interest to his employees and retire, which he did. But then fate intervened, and his real career began.

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