A native of San Jose, California, Amadeo Peter Giannini became a true booster of the San Francisco region -- and the financial guarantor of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Born into a family of Italian immigrants, Giannini knew early tragedy: his father was shot to death by a man who owed him a dollar. Giannini left school at age 14 to work for his stepfather's produce business. Within five years, Giannini had become a partner in the company. It was performing so well that Giannini could afford to sell his share and retire at the ripe old age of 31. But his business ventures were just beginning.
Blue Collar Banker
A year later, Giannini was named to the board of the Columbus Savings and Loan Society, a bank in San Francisco's Italian neighborhood. Giannini shared little in common with his fellow board members. The man with the blue collar background argued that the bank should lend more freely to working class people, whom he believed to be fiscally responsible. Giannini left Columbus Savings and Loan when he realized the bank did not share his point of view.
In 1904, Giannini opened the Bank of Italy -- directly across the street from Columbus Savings and Loan. He went door-to-door and stopped people on the street to explain what his bank could do. Two years later, a disastrous earthquake destroyed San Francisco. Most bankers closed shop temporarily to assess the damage and formulate a response. Ever the contrarian, Giannini set up a rudimentary desk on the docks right away, and issued credit "on a face and a signature" to families and small businesses in immediate, desperate need. Giannini's investments built a foundation for San Francisco's economic recovery.
Giannini's legend grew as he continued to loan money to larger, even riskier enterprises. He bankrolled the new California wine industry and loaned money to Hollywood ventures, including Mary Pickford's and Charlie Chaplin's United Artists in 1923. Walt Disney went $2 million over budget making Snow White, but Giannini helped him out with a loan. Only a few years later, in 1928, Giannini bought the Bank of America and consolidated his vast bank holdings.
San Francisco benefited from Giannini's commitment again during the Great Depression. Giannini urged the city's hard-pressed citizens to put money in any bank they could, to make it work for the community at large. Their deposits could help build homes, farms, and schools, yielding jobs. Giannini exhorted people with slogans like "Back to Good Times," and "California Can Lead the Nation."
In 1932, Golden Gate Bridge chief engineer Joseph Strauss called upon Giannini for help. In the depressed economic climate, no one would lend him money, and without funding he could not start construction. Giannini listened to Strauss explain his 14-year struggle to improve the San Francisco economy by building the bridge. Strauss knew that if Giannini did not take an interest in the bridge, there were precious few other avenues to explore. Fortunately for Strauss, he had found to the right man.
"We Need the Bridge"
"We'll take the bonds," Giannini said to Strauss as he finished his plea. "We need the bridge." Bank of America bought $6 million worth of bonds, allowing Strauss' enterprise to get underway. Without Giannini's assistance, it is doubtful that the Golden Gate Bridge would ever have been built.
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