That’s Amore

When is a Bank not A Bank? 

I have a trivia question for you. What is the name of the second-largest bank in America? If your answered Wells Fargo or Citigroup, you'd be incorrect. The answer is Bank of America or B of A. When you consider who to bank with, you must know the institution's history. I have talked about JPMorgan Chase & Co. in the past; however, I have not given you the rich history of B of A yet.

First of all, you must understand that banks are not owned by the federal government and are not untouchable institutions they appear to be. A bank is a business a man or woman created to make money. Furthermore, banks have a set of men and women who act as directors. The director's job is to make sure that they look after the interests of their company's owners, be they shareholders, in a publicly-traded company, or investors. How they do this job is usually based on providing loans to people of high character and credit "worthiness." That is to say; it is who you know and trust that get the banks money.

So, imagine you're an immigrant to a new country, and you are not permitted to do business with any established banks based on your station in life (poor or different). How do you get a loan to start a business or buy a house? Ultimately, you have to go to alternative lenders.

He Helped Us All

These lenders are loan sharks or other less reputable individuals. Many people in the late 1800s had no access to loans or other bank services until Amadeo Pietro Giannini decided he would be the first to offer the option.

Amadeo himself was a first-generation Italian who grew up in San Jose, California. He worked for his family business as a produce broker, commission merchant, and produce dealer for farms in the Santa Clara Valley. Giannini was highly successful and was able to sell his interest to his employees and retire at the age of 31. He would later marry Clorinda Cuneo, daughter of a North Beach, San Francisco real estate magnate, and administer his father-in-law's estate.


He was soon weary of his station in life and requested to take a position as the Columbus Savings & Loan director. Giannini's father-in-law owned an interest in the bank and got him the job. However, Amadeo soon learned that he was still an immigrant, even though he was born an American citizen. Furthermore, the board rejected loans to anyone who was not a "true" upstanding citizen of the U.S. Giannini saw an opportunity to serve the increasing immigrant population without a bank despite the prejudice. Constantly disagreeing with the other directors who did not share his vision, he quit the board and started his own bank.

Giannini founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco on October 17, 1904. Located in a converted saloon was step one; the next was the moniker of the institution he sited as the bank for the "little fellow." A new bank for the new hardworking immigrants other banks would not serve. No one had ever offered low-income individual's the ability to bank like this before. As a result, deposits on that first day totaled $8,780. Most importantly, within a year, deposits soared above $700,000 ($22.6 million in 2022 dollars).

Bank of Italy, San Francisco, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. From 1908 to 1921, this eight story, Second Renaissance Revival structure in San Francisco's financial district served as headquarters for Bank of Italy (later renamed Bank of America).

Rock Solid 

In 1906 San Francisco experienced a devastating earthquake, and fires leveled much of the city. Consequently, Giannini moved the vault's money to his home in then-rural San Mateo, 18 miles (29 km) away. He hid the money in a garbage wagon to not draw attention to himself. Furthermore, the fires had heated the vaults of other big banks, and opening them too early would risk destroying the contents. The majority of banks were closed for weeks.

As a result, Giannini was one of the few bankers who could handle withdrawal requests and provide loans, operating from a plank across two barrels in the street. Amadeo made loans on a handshake to those interested in rebuilding. Above all, he would tell stories years later of how every loan was repaid in full. Also, as a reward to the sanitation worker whose wagon transported the bank's assets, Giannini gave the man's son his first job when he turned 14.

During the 1900s, the State of California legislated that banks be allowed to own branches. Giannini quickly opened his first branch outside San Francisco in 1909 in San Jose. By 1916, Giannini had expanded and opened several other branches. He believed that having multiple small banks located throughout the state would afford him stability. His approach worked, and eventually, the Bank of Italy had hundreds of branches throughout the state.

San Francisco Earthquake of 1906: Ruins in vicinity of Post and Grant Avenue. Looking northeast.

Post San Francisco Earthquake 1906

The Power of Investing 

Bank of America combines the Bank of Italy and Bank of America. After Giannini had finalized the merger with the owner, Orra E. Monnette, the two men concurred that the Bank of America name idealized the broader mission of the new bank. By 1929, the bank had over 400 banking offices in California. A new player in American banking had emerged.  

Above all, Giannini was a visionary, and he wasn't satisfied with just running a bank. He saw the future in entertainment and nurtured California's fledgling motion picture and wine industries. Walt Disney was the recipient of a loan to produce Snow White, the first full-length animated motion picture to be made in the US. During the Great Depression, he bought the bonds that financed the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Amadeo bankrolled industrialist Henry Kaiser and his enterprises supporting the war effort during World War II. Giannini also gave a couple of garage "tinker's" William Hewlett and David Packard, investment capital to help start Hewlett-Packard. 

Be Bold

Finally, in 1930 Giannini retired, but a year later, when his successor instituted new conservative policies in the face of the growing Great Depression, he was forced to come back. Amadeo angrily waged a successful proxy fight, ousting his rivals and resuming the chairmanship of Transamerica and the Bank of America.

By 1934 he relinquished the chairmanship of Bank of America. However, he continued as board chairman of Transamerica until his death on July 3, 1949. At that time, Bank of America had more than 500 branch banks, with more than $6 billion in deposits. He left two foundations, the Bank of America-Giannini Foundation for medical research and educational scholarships and the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics of the University of California.  

Trust in What You Don't Understand

Remember, a person or people form banks; they are not institutions. Money is a promise. I give you a dollar, and the U.S. says it is worth a dollar. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why do we think something is above us or in control of our fate. Amadeo didn't believe anything could hold him back. Not an Earthquake, Depression, or some small-minded banker. He believed in himself and then you and wanted to help you create your dream.

What dream do you have? Let me know.

Bank of America Mosaic, San Mateo, CA.  Depicting the life of Amadeo Giannini.  The inscription over the door reads: His achievements were the results of his understanding of the needs of his fellow man. 


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