Amadeo Giannini, the banker of the earthquake

Bank of America Mosaic in San Mateo_CA_patrick dwyer_american financial titans_Amadeo Giannini
Image courtesy of Franco Folini at Flickr.com

Although the world still ignored the power and dangers of nuclear energy in 1906, it was very much aware of the evidence of the power and dangers of earthquakes indeed. Thus, between bewilderment and fear, the people of San Francisco awoke from their peaceful sleep that April 18, 110 years ago. The nearly eight degrees that shook the California city and subsequent fires raised the death toll to 3,000, while the survivors faced a future similar to the one faced by Japan in 2011.

Among the serious problems caused by the earthquake were the fires in particular. The fires forced most of the country’s banks to keep their doors closed; others directly saw the money burn in their safes. However, not everything was crying while sitting idly from the victims, the known cliché that crisis means opportunity was incarnated through Amadeo Peter Giannini, the banker of the disaster.

About to turn 36 when the earth’s movements woke him, this American, son of Italians, managed to get out of town on a wagon -commonly used to collect garbage- two million dollars in gold, cash and securities market from the bank he had founded two years earlier, the Bank of Italy. But A. P., as he was known, did not run to hide his money waiting for better times, he decided that since he had already had this fortune and this vision, the best was to help rebuild the city.

While other bankers noted with pen and paper the damages in their offices, Giannini, without thinking twice, placed a wooden plank on top of two barrels in the port city. That was his office, his goal: to distribute loans for the reconstruction of the city. The loans were distributed with the only guarantee of “a face and a signature” among small businessmen and street people in need of aid for reconstruction. A distant origin of microcredits, which was a vital push to resume normal life in the city.

Until his death, A. P. bragged that every penny of those loans had been repaid. Meanwhile, his initial ally, the driver of the garbage truck that was an improvised armored car, also received thanks from Giannini, who gave his son his first job in his own bank.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake_patrick dwyer_american financial titans_Amadeo Giannini
Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey at Flickr.com

Yunus’ seed

The Giannini family emigrated from Genoa to California, where A.P. was born in 1870. There, he took his first steps as a broker, which gave him a capital that, along with his stepfather and ten other friends, helped him found his first bank, the Bank of Italy, in 1904. His goal was to extend credit, rather limited to businessmen, to the working class. A maxim that applied during the catastrophe of San Francisco.

After the earthquake, A. P. began to expand throughout the Americas. The son of Italian immigrants was truly embroidering the so called “American dream”. The emerging success of the cinematograph was also in the mind of this Italian-American. He contributed a great financial support to the foundation of the legendary United Artists and even came to invest two million dollars for the subsequent realization of Walt Disney’s dream animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. The industry in the region also owed him a favor, and that is in the fact that Californian wine production began thanks to his money.

Before Giannini, Wall Street banks were a reflection of elitism. A normal person could not enter the house of Morgan and open a bank account, as one could not get into Buckingham Palace and use the bedrooms. Giannini changed all this by converting his purpose in life into the struggle for the simple man.

Wall Street almost thwarted what one day became the Bank of America when Giannini retired. Once he returned from his retirement, he managed to win a power struggle to regain the bank. He never retired altogether until his death.

The expansion of banks concluded when encompassed under the name of Bank Of America in 1928. Although he retired two years later, he shortly after had to take the reins of the group again due to the Great Depression.

He ended up being remembered not only as one of the few non-Wall Street insiders who faced Wall Street and won, but the man who began to democratize banking. Perhaps the most lasting monument to his life of work is the status of California as one of the largest economies in the world, due largely to the financing and credits offered by Amadeo Giannini.

At his death in 1949, Giannini had $500,000 to his name, a fortune at the time, but less than what he could have harvested due to the low interests charged for a long time for his loans. A great example of survival in the crisis.

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