1870, San Jose, CA
1949, San Mateo, CA
When most banks closed at 3pm, Giannini kept his banks open until nine or ten at night for workers.
Photos: (left) Victoria Hammerness; (right) Library of Congress
The son of immigrants loaned to immigrants when other bankers refused. He built a vast Western banking empire, fueling California's growth, and created a national system of branch banks to serve ordinary people.
Born to Take Risks
Amadeo Peter Giannini has been called "America's banker." His Italian father traveled home from the California gold fields, then brought a Genoese bride back to San Jose in mid-1869, via the brand-new transcontinental railroad. His mother was also an adventurous soul, leaving her family and homeland with a man she'd known for only six weeks. Their son Amadeo, born in San Jose in May, 1870, would take his own risks in the world of banking.
Bank of Italy
As a young man, Giannini succeeded in the wholesale produce business, but grew bored. Angered by the era's typical banking practices -- making loans to and servicing only wealthy clients -- he founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in October 1904 as an institution for the "little fellows" -- the hardworking immigrants other banks would not serve. He offered those ignored customers savings accounts and loans, judging them not by how much money they already had, but by their characters. Within a year, deposits were soaring above $700,000 ($13.5 million in 2002 dollars).
After a disastrous earthquake and subsequent fires levelled much of the city in 1906, Giannini created new confidence. He set up a temporary bank immediately, collecting deposits, making loans, and proclaiming to all that San Francisco would rise from the ashes. He based his business on openness and trust, making his reputation by helping the city rebuild. Then he expanded the Bank of Italy across California, breaking with an American tradition of independent local banks by providing his egalitarian banking services to the "little fellows" in the Yugolsavian, Russian, Mexican, Portuguese, Chinese, Greek, and other immigrant communities. By the mid-1920s, he owned the third largest bank in the nation.
In 1928, Giannini put his banks into a giant holding company he called Transamerica Corporation, reflecting his new ambition. In 1930, he formed the Bank of America, which would eventually become the largest in the United States. As a measure of its success, it withstood the Great Depression, funding large industrial and agricultural interests as well as California's burgeoning movie industry and even the Golden Gate Bridge. When Giannini died on June 3, 1949, at age 79, hundreds of ordinary people showed up for his funeral.