Amadeo Peter Giannini: The World’s Bigger Banker (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of the story of Amadeo Peter Giannini, an Italian emigrant who arrived in America still in his mother’s womb. Amadeo was born in 1870 in San José California, and starting without anything, in just 40 years he was able to create the world’s biggest bank.

At that time a socially liberal vision like this was common in the USA, where Ford, increased salaries of his employees, transforming them into potential buyers of his cars. And also in Italy, some illuminated industrials built houses for their own employees and subsidized schooling for their children.

The more that the deposits grew, the more Giannini offered loans and subsidies. And the incredible increase in deposits demonstrated that he was right which reached $700,000 in one year.

But for the other bankers in San Francisco liberal ethically innovative strategy seemed not only revolutionary but also dangerous and so they declared war on him. There were rumors that The Bank of Italy had difficulties and a lot of their clients went as low as to take their savings out of the bank. Amadeo who had also anticipated more difficult moments and had accumulated huge gold reserves, so he immediately put big tables outside the bank where he put the gold reserves and stacks of banknotes and the clients were then ashamed, in front of all the richness, to ask for their savings back.

In April 1906 the deposits surmounted a million dollars. And that was when the tragedy occurred. On the 18th of April 1906 an earthquake of biblical proportions destroyed San Francisco. There were aftershocks that transformed the city into a mass of smouldering ruins. The ones who survived the earthquake walked around the streets like ghosts, crying, praying and looting.

Giannini, along with his partners, used his step father’s fruit carts to transport Bank of Italy’s money and gold to a safe place which he hid in his semi destroyed fireplace in his house.

The other banks in the city not only lost a large part of their capital, due to fires, but also there account books, so they weren’t able to reopen for at least a month .

Amadeo Giannini, who knew every single client as well as their financial situation, opened his bank only after six days, creating a makeshift office in his brother’s half-destroyed house, who was a doctor. He hung out the burned sign which he had found. He also put a sign in plain view which he had painted during the night, which read: “Loans like before, more than what was given before”.

The new bank of Italy was literally mobbed with crowds of families affected by the disaster in need of everything, who withdrew their savings, or asked for loans. Giannini was happy to give money to whoever asked, without asking questions, only making a note of their names and the amount.

But that wasn’t enough.

After two days of the rush of the needy he left the makeshift office for his partners to manage and together with his stepfather he went to the other areas of the city, with a small cash box with money. . Amadeo went to the devastated areas of San Francisco, the tent camps, offering loans without interests and filled his pockets with papers signed by immigrants from all over the world, sometimes marked with a cross.

We can ask ourselves: how could Giannini loan all this money to everyone? How could he continue to go on? After only a few weeks the old clients came back who had withdrawn their savings from the bank. And as soon as the other banks opened , a lot of people withdrew their savings to bring it to the Giannini, the gentleman. Besides that, a lot of immigrants who had never been in a bank before, picked up all their savings in gold from the houses in ruins and decided to deposit them in the Bank of Italy.

Giannini became the emblem of reconstruction of San Francisco, not as much for the money but for the sense of security that he had transmitted, and for his optimism and his faith in the people who had lost everything. Amadeo gave people the desire and courage to try again, above all in the immigrant communities who irreversibly became Bank of Italy customers

In the poor area of North Beach, the Italian community became an important player in the reconstruction and North Beach became the centre of new business ventures and entrepreneurs in San Francisco. This experience convinced Amadeo Peter to be a banker for the rest of his life.

And he had incredible success. Giannini’s fame became a legend, his acts of good will were told al over the Pacific coast. With his faith in his courage and his moral integrity a stream of new clients from all over. Everyone wanted to deposit their money in the Bank of Italy.

The reconstruction of San Francisco, which was the main pacific port at the time, attracted a lot of small and big investors, and a lot of money was deposited in Giannini’s bank.

In 1909 a law went into effect in the USA that allowed a system of “branch banking”, or in other words the opening of branches in other cities.

Only a few bankers knew how to use the new law. Giannini went to the Atlantic coast and then to Canada, where the new system of banks was already in use.

As we have learned, until now the American banks worked only for the rich people, excluding immigrants and small farmers. But Giannini, who knew the situation of the small farmers of the Santa Clara Valley, he sensed that three could be a possibility of reciprocal interest for a bank that Is available to give incentives to small land owners.

He was able to convince the other members of the Bank of Italy to work towards this goal but he also wanted strong ties between the bank and people from the area. Assuming that among all of the people of the new banks that there would be a great number of artisans, tradesmen and local farmers.

The employees Also had to be local citizens and they had to speak many languages.

In 1909 the Bank of Italy opened his first branch in San José, his city of birth. In 1910 he bought two banks at San Francisco, in 1912 he bought another in at San Mateo. By the end of 1912 the deposits were much higher than $11.000.000 dollars and in 1913 Giannini opened another big branch in Los Angeles.

From 1916 until 1918 he opened many branches in the agricultural valleys of California, therefore extending credit to small farmers and the new emigrants.

A lot of bankers, including the most influential ones of the USA, where seriously worried because of the new tendency that Giannini had started and started a campaign to degrade him with the aim of isolating him.

Giannini understood the risk and decided to take control of the situation and he nominated himself president and put a lot of initiative into effect that that made him and the bank more solid.

In 1919 the Bank of Italy bought a bank in New York, and he named it Bancitaly Cooperation.

This institution was bought nine months after he bought “Banca dell’Italia Meridionale” , that later on was named “Bank of America and Italy”.

In July of 1919 the Bank of Italy subscribed to the Federal Riserve Sistem and the 1st of March 1927 it became nationalized.

In 1920 Giannini sensed the possibility of the developing the film industry, that up until that time was active mainly in New York. He sent his brother Attilio Giannini who left the medical profession, to dedicate himself not only in the Bancitaly cooperation but also in the emerging world of cinema.

But rather than focusing on the financial aspects, Amadeo paid attention to socio cultural importances that the film industry’s were proposing regarding the American conscience and behavior. Since the New York bankers that financed the films asked loan shark interest rates at around 20%, he decided to offer more reasonable rates-around 6%- for deserving authors that were not only for having fun, but also to propose quality social models

So, when Attilio came back from New York to tell his brother that he had met young talented comic artist, who was already successful in comedies, but that couldn’t find a financer for his project, Amadeo decided to give $50.000 to First National Distributors to make Charlie Chaplin’s

film “Il monello”.

The costs of the film could have cost much less, but Amadeo who wanted to get to know him personally, didn’t want him them to have to worry about the finances.

Within six weeks he made his money back on the film and following that his bank made enormous profits.

The event created an uproar and many other directors and producers asked to be financed, but Gianinno wasn’t interested only in commercial ventures with economical goals.

In 1922, the Bank of Italy had 61 branches. Considering the incredible expansion, the consultants of the bank wanted to offer him $50.000 a year above his salary. Amadeo who had already saved a fortune, of nearly $500,000, who was faithful to his principles, refused the offer, noting that whoever wanted to have more than half a million dollars should have run to a psychiatrist.

Between 1927 and 1929 the Bank of Italy issued with NATIONAL CURRENCY bills which were legal currency in the United States.

In the first month of 1928, in the era of financial euphoria, Giannini made revenues with his participation in the bank of Italy a million and a half dollars, but since he didn’t want to become to rich, he decided to give the total amount to the University of California for researching agricultural technology.

Seven years after the experience “Il monello”, Giannini became good friends with Walt Disney whom he believed to be a genius and he spent time with him discussing not only non verbal communication but the power of the images in communication.

After a decent success with the short film of Mickey Mouse, Giannini’s sensed that there were great possibilities for cartoons and he financed the first feature length Disneyfilm in color called “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves” Once again the film was much more successful than they had expected. Walt Disney became famous all over the world. Giannini was tired of making money and became the financial director of his friend’s company that was by now famous.

In 1930 the Bank of Italy was named “Bank of America National Trust and Saving Association”.

It’s important to note that, when the Bank of Italy closed it’s books and examined the suspended transactions, they realized that 96% of loans without guarantees were reimbursed by 96% of the total that was paid out, and so overall, considering the interest, the bank didn’t suffer any losses on loans given to the people that weren’t well off.

On the contrary, the big bankers that accepted only people with money, while in times of crisis had considerable losses. And they didn’t forgive Giannini’s foresightedness.

In 1931 Giannini had to deal with the most difficult event of his life. He got polio, and he was cured not only for the intense cures that he had undergone, but above all thanks to battle to not become excluded from Bank of America.

As soon as the rumors went around about his illness, a lot of enemies – lead by the Transamerican Elisha Walzer, by J.P Morgan and by members of the Federal Reserve, who were associated as being nasty vultures from Wall Street

Giannini’s reaction was absolutely energetic. Even considering his health conditions he actively took part in the battle to regain control of the bank, and faced with this problem, his health miraculously improved unexpectedly. He regained his strength in a time that couldn’t be explained by doctors, and with the support of many people who benefited, he regained control of the institution that he had created.

Amadeo Peter Giannini wasn’t particularly interested in the cinema. He liked only a few authors that through film told stories that improved people’s lives. He said that the fairy tales or parabolas- today we can call them fictions – were instruments good for transmitting values and traditions to new generations, and after Disney he helped another fairy tale creator Frank Capra.

Frank was a Sicilian who arrived with his family in California as a boy. He became an engineer and then lost his job because of the crisis in ’29 and after some variations of his fortune, he casually made his way to Hollywood where he discovered the world of cinema. He became Giannini’s friend there, who he became devoted to Giannini, because he saw his own father in Giannini.

Since there was a reciprocal admiration, in 1934 Amadeo financed his first successful film called “Once upon a night…”, and the collaboration continued in 1936 with “Happiness is coming” and in 1938 with “The eternal illusion”.

Frank and Amadeo loved to speak in Italian and often developed the scenes of the films together. Giannini loved Capra’s narration that exposed the dramatic situation in America- a reality based on competition, that justified the non interest of others and promoted climbing the social ladder – who originated a society that was conditioned by subtle power of mass media, where the economical lobby controlled politics, but with everything, it seemed like an offer of blackmail, even if this liberation came about often through a miracle like what happens in fairy tales. It’s a demonstration that it’s possible to escape from the nightmare, and that there is still space for dreams.

As mentioned earlier, Amadeo didn’t play up to the cinema world, but as an important banker he knew that in this world, he knew that he would have made a lot of money for the bank. Once again he called his brother Attilio from New York, and asked him to manage the cinema sector.

Between 1932, and 1952, Bank of America financed over 500 films, and invested over half a billion dollars.

However Amadeo Giannini wasn’t only fascinated by dreams of cinema.

In 1932, the “dreamer” Joseph Strass, designer of the Golden Gate , wasn’t able to find a financer for his project, had the inspiration to go to Giannini. And the winning card to convince Amadeo wasn’t the possible profit, but the conviction that the bridge could have helped the citizens of San Francisco to get out of the depressing economic situation that hung over the city.

Giannini financed his project with six million dollars and asserted that Bank of America had no interest in the project.

In the first half of the thirties Giannini got ready to fight the “Mc. Federal Act” a law that prohibited you from operating in more than one state.

In 1934 the Bank of America had 423 branches in 255 California cities.

On the 14th of January his son Lawrence Mario Giannini who Amadeo educated with his example, took the place of his father as the president of Bank of America, and Amadeo to stay close by accepted the position of being honorary president.

Giannini made unselfishness to be his primary profession. Besides giving credit to poverty stricken people, and to have given hope to who has lost it, Amadeo offered a large part of his earnings to social deeds, but without sounding the trumpets on philanthropy and patronage

In 1930 he created the GIANNINI FOUNDATION of agricultural economics, which he left to the University of California. The foundation had one goal: to favour the research aimed at developing rural resources and to increase the economical activities of California’s farmers. In 1945 he also created the GIANNINI FAMILY FOUNDATION, with the goal to promote the medical research.

During the 2nd World War California became the most important state for war production. The Bank of America financed the production of airplanes, ships, and heavy and lightweight weapons, It managed the payment of the soldiers and civil employees.

Amadeso Giannino gave his son Mario the responsibility to deal with Italians that were confined in prison camps, and to exert himself to try to avoid the imprisonment of other Italian Americans

Right after the war, Giannini, who always felt profoundly Italian, to the point that, even at an old age spoke often with the a dialect from Liguria that he learned from his mother, wanted the bank to help in efforts of reconstruction in Italy in first person.

He agreed with Arthur Schlesinger, the man responsible for the Marshall plan, to speed up the shipment of aid, that his bank would send the amount necessary without any interest, for all the shipments headed for Italy.

In October 1945, when Amadeo was seventy five years old, he left the Bank of America for good. He left all the drawers in his desk open, which he never closed anyway saying “I have nothing to hide”, just like “the bank has nothing to hide.”

At the same time he announced that the Bank of America had become the biggest bank in the world!.

At the age of eighty Amadeo Peter Giannini breathed calmly, and was comforted by the affection of his loved ones. When he died an accurate inventory was carried out of all of his assets, that came to exactly 489,278 dollars.