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A. P. Giannini

Banker for the Little Guy

A P Giannini was the first to challenge the unwritten rule that banks should only lend money to people who don't need it. 

Amadeo Pietro (Peter) Giannini was born on a small farm in San Jose, California in 1870, the son of Italian immigrants. He was only seven years old when he saw his father killed in a fight with another man over a dollar. His mother remarried, and his new stepfather was in the produce business. A. P. quit school at the age of 14 to help his stepfather, and soon impressed the stepfather so much that he was made a partner in the business.

A. P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America

A. P. Giannini built his reputation and the produce business by being fair and honest in dealing with people. He did so well that he was able to retire at age 31, by selling his half of the business to his employees. His retirement didn't last long though, because he was asked by a group of San Francisco businessmen to serve on the board of a small Savings and Loan that catered to the Italian-American community. 

In those days, banks only leant money to large businesses and other assorted rich folks. Because of his humble beginnings, A. P. could relate to the immigrant poor and their needs. He trusted hard-working poor people and wanted to extend credit to them through liberal loan policies, "To give the little guy a bank that will do business with him."

Giannini couldn't convince the other members of the board to give his ideas a try, so he decided to start his own bank. He lined up some investors and started the Bank of Italy in a converted saloon. He even kept one of the bartenders on as an assistant teller.

He was the first to offer home mortgages, auto loans and installment credit, and marketed those services to people who had no experience with credit. He built his business by reaching out to the immigrant poor, even going door-to-door to explain his services to folks who didn't know anything at all about banks.

In the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a fire threatened his bank, so Giannini borrowed a wagon, collected all his gold, currency and records, and brought it all to his home. A few days later, and while the other banks in town were still closed, A. P. set up shop in the midst of the rubble with a plank stretched across a couple of beer barrels serving as his desk. The loans he extended to people, in many cases based on little more than a handshake, contributed greatly to the rebuilding of the city.

Giannini always worked harder and longer than any of his competitors. Once, when he was riding his horse out of town to visit a farmer in order to close a deal, he saw a competitor behind him who he knew was on his way to the same farmer's house. Giannini took a shortcut by racing ahead, dismounting his horse, swimming across a small pond, and running all the rest of the way to the farmer's house in order to get his contract signed before the other man arrived.

Many of his customers were traveling over long distances to do business with him, so in 1909 he decided to open a branch of his bank in San Jose to make it easier for them. He then began to buy other banks and open new ones in many other California cities, and a few other major US cities.

In 1928, he purchased Bank of America, an old and very respected institution in New York City, and consolidated all of his banks under that name. He continued to open branches all over the United States, making Bank of America the first nationwide bank and by 1945, Bank of America was the largest bank in the United States.

Giannini was a liberal in a very conservative business, but he wasn't just being a nice guy. All of his innovations like loans to ordinary people and installment payments, were sound business decisions that revolutionized the banking business and generated substantial profits for his shareholders. He also helped large and small businesses that were down on their luck or out of favor. His financial backing of the California wine and movie industries was instrumental in their growth.

He was very generous with his employees, and instituted profit-sharing and stock ownership plans. He understood that sharing profits with his employees would guarantee their loyalty and his success.

The man who tried to retire at 31, was still at the helm when he died in 1949, at the age of 79. His estate was valued at a rather modest $500,000, because although he could have amassed a huge fortune in his lifetime, he was never interested in accumulating wealth and often didn't take a salary. Giannini often said, "I don't want to be rich. No man owns a fortune; it owns him. He used most of the money he did make to start foundations that funded scholarships, and supported medical and agricultural research.

A. P. Giannini once said, "It's no use to decide what's going to happen unless you have the courage of your convictions. Many a brilliant idea has been lost because the man who dreamed it lacked the spunk or the spine to put it across. It doesn't matter if you don't always hit the exact bulls-eye, the other rings in the targets score points, too."

Learn what happened to the bank Giannini founded
The Rise and Fall of Bank of America



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