A Closer Look at A.P. Giannini

Here is an essay entry from a prompt about Amadeo P. Giannini I wrote at Grove City College’s Entrepreneurship & Enterprise class. Enjoy.

A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America

A.P Giannini is “a man who attributes the magnitude of his achievements largely to the bitter fight waged against him by competitors” (Forbes).  Over a century later, the man who created the quickest growing bank in his time has now become the founder of the largest bank in the United States.  He is the ironic magnate – despite his rule over an increasingly might bank, A.P. lived his life by a simple philosophy, “I am not a millionaire, and I never expect or hope to be one.  I have no ambition to become very rich.”  This closer look at A.P. Giannini’s life attempts to look at causes to the epic effect of a man who helped make America.

            A person’s story does not begin merely at their exiting of a uterus.  Their story begins with the genes and DNA that had evolved over thousands of years to create a culmination of flesh, blood, and mysterious spirit referred to as a human.  Although A.P. Giannini was born a Taurus on the astrological calendar (a sign that has the distinct strengths of reliability, patience, practicality, devotion, responsibility, and stability with weaknesses that include being stubborn, possessive, and uncompromising), his story really begins with his ancestrally adjacent predecessors – his parents. 

Luigi Giannini and Virginia Demartini were adventurers.  Luigi had originally immigrated to California as a part of the gold rush.  After making some decent cash, he went back to visit his hometown of Genoa, Italy.  It was at this point that he met and fell in love with Virginia.  Just six weeks later, Luigi and a pregnant Virginia came back to California by boat and the newly built transcontinental railroad.  This impulsiveness shown by Luigi and Virginia depicts a strong sense of self-independence (a rare trait to most but a common trait to immigrants).

Being born on May 6, 1870 as a Taurus to two adventurers from a passionate Italian cultural heritage, A.P. “..has the ability to see things from a grounded, practical and realistic perspective.  Taurus’ find it easy to make money and stay on same projects for years, or until they are completed. What we often see as stubbornness can be interpreted as commitment, and their ability to complete tasks whatever it takes is uncanny. This makes them excellent employees, great long-term friends and partners, always being there for people they love” (Taurus Zodiac Sign Taurus Horoscope).

            A.P. grew up observing an era whence the economy was booming in San Jose, California.  Living within an Italian community of fellow immigrants and working on his father’s farm and hotel, A.P. had a hard-working role model… until one of his father’s co-workers shot him in the head over a single dollar.  The trauma undergone from being present and watching such an instance would have been mentally and emotionally debilitating to almost anyone.  Thus Giannini’s first major trial in life at seven years old.  The impact on the youngster’s mental health is undocumented.  His father figure was soon replaced when his mother married Lorenzo Scatena, another self-employed entrepreneur.  Virginia remarried in less than a year and A.P. began working for his stepfather at 12 years old.  This was no ordinary 12 year old, however.  From an early age, A.P. would sneak out of the house in order to get his kicks… in the form of hard labor. 

“In order to elude his mother, he got up and dressed very quietly, tip-toed downstairs in his stockings, and then put on his shoes on the sidewalk!” (Forbes).  He would wake up at midnight to go work, then went to school and did more work afterwards.  He ate dinner then did his homework and got just a few hours of sleep every night.  This activity was nearly inhuman, as if a God-given drive had to have been granted to Giannini.  As a teenager, he valued working over sleep.

In addition to this exceptional hunger to work and maximize his time, Giannini was very practical.  He realized that school was nearly worthless for where his talents lied and the plans he had for himself.  Dropping out after 8th grade, he took a short business college course and continued working in produce wholesale & distribution with his stepfather.  By this point in his youth, Giannini was tall, dark, handsome, and strong.  Perhaps his level of attractiveness had a positive effect on his confidence and belief in his accomplishing challenging tasks.  However, he did not coast through life with his natural talent and physically good looks alone.

A.P. was very business savvy – he would oftentimes find better deals, suppliers, or products to add into his wholesaling route in order to incur a greater profit and service for his patrons.  This shows that he had a good radar for opportunity.  At the mere age of 19, Giannini received a partnership stake of controlling equity in his stepfather’s business.  The belief, motivation, and reward by his stepfather allowed him to flourish as a young man.  He was free to progress and grow as a person.  There was no one holding A.P. back, but only encouraging him.

            Giannini prepared himself for his future banking industry endeavor through his 20’s, whilst working in the produce industry.  This is where he got his “10,000 hours towards becoming a master” multiple times over (Outliers, Gladwell). 

In his early 20s, he found the woman he would marry – Clorinda Agnes Cuneo, a Pisces (the ideal match for a Taurus).  Perhaps their high astrological compatibility made other parts of his life simpler and gratifying.  It seems that he had found the perfect woman for him on every relational level.  Clorinda was one year older than A.P., quite like how Westinghouse and other powerful industrialists preferred their women – older, mature.  Perhaps these women would have to have greater years of life under their belt to attract such brilliant men.  Giannini’s relationship with his wife would serendipitously turn out to be the seed necessary towards becoming a banking magnate.  Hardships continued to plague their family, however – only three out of their six children survived to adulthood, and those three additional catastrophic events added to the tough family struggles that A.P. endured.  In historical recollection of A.P.’s life, the details about the death of those around him is often overlooked.  In fact, of the five works I cited below, only one of them mentioned the details of the deaths Giannini endured.  Perhaps it is this constant reminder of death that had made Giannini realize the value of life and thus pursue efficiency in every task he set out to accomplish.  For the young man, if something was worth doing – it was worth doing well.

            A.P. later sold half his interest to his employees at the age of 31 in the most honest and fair manner possible.  His goal was retirement – to live a humble and relaxed existence.  He paid his employees with stake so they could reap the same financial reward and opportunity Giannini had experienced as well.  What was Giannini after?  Why did he sell his life’s work?  Why did he want to retire?  Perhaps Giannini lived not money, not a specific industry’s work, not for his or his family’s wellbeing – but for a challenge.  He made inconvenient challenges into opportunities to leverage himself towards growth.  The man played his cards beautifully even when he was dealt a bad hand – and this is what he received his thrills from.  Perhaps A.P. was addicted to facing and accomplishing a challenge.  Perhaps he received a high from being a career contrarian.

Giannini was frugal, nonetheless, a sign of his deep practicality and discipline.  Instead of stopping to eat during his workdays, he would eat crackers and cheese while he drove his produce carriage around from place to place.  I have heard it said that one of the most overlooked attributes of the financially successful is their frugality (with examples like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in modern day).  Giannini fell within this group of the frugally successful.  He was a man who only took what he needed, keeping his salary lower than the typical executive and sometimes forgoing payment.  “The amount I made was ample to satisfy my family’s needs,” he said.  A.P. was not a materialistic nor money-obsessed man, but a man with a deeper “why” to his every so brilliant “how” as he went upon life with a champion’s work ethic towards building his businesses.

            Giannini’s marriage to Clorinda may have been a real match made in heaven and sent by God.  Whenever Joseph Cuneo, Clorinda’s father, died in 1902, A.P. took responsibility for the man’s holdings, which included shares in the Columbus Savings and Loan Society.  As a stakeholder, he was placed on the board of the firm where he observed a huge problem.  The organization was impractical because they would not give small loans out to people.  Giannini was angered and frustrated at this policy, for this meant that entrepreneurs and farmers did not have a good chance at starting/building their own business.   Having been in the overlooked clientele’s shoes, A.P. deeply sympathized.  He knew that the way to create something of one’s self was through hard work and opportunity.  He wanted others to have an opportunity for success.

What additionally fueled Giannini’s frustration was the presence of a quickly growing competitor to the business model of issuing small and democratized loans.  A.P. shows his contrarianism when face-to-face with incompetence here; he and five other directors resigned Columbus to found the Bank of Italy in October 1904 with a combined $150,000 in resources.  Bank of Italy would later become the Bank of America after dozens of years and dozens of nationwide acquisitions.  The bank opened directly across the street from Columbus in an old saloon.  A.P. was impatient (quite like Taurus’ are well known for) in the face of a huge problem that needed fixed as well as an itching for challenge that needed scratched.  He knew that, “crops come on the market at different times in different sections.  Growers in one district will be paying off loans at the time growers in another section will be needing funds.”  A.P. had understood this market concept that still rings true today from his experience being actively involved in the California’s socio-economic ecosystem as a teenager.

The phrase “little people” was used whenever describing the demographic Giannini originally aimed to service.  There were riches in the niches, but at that point, this sort of business thought was ahead of its time.  He would service customers of any demographic, however, never discriminating except for in the case of faulty character.  The man was fearless in his mission.  Perhaps at his onset, he wondered if he could make this into something big after all.  Although he was technically supposed to be “retired”, he could not sit still (literally and metaphorically).  A.P. would only sit for an hour a day and sleep very little at night (quite like how he did as a hustling adolescent).  Additionally, Giannini was a salesperson at heart – asking literally everyone and their mothers to open accounts with Bank of Italy. 

To compare and contrast the happenings of the times – there was another famous Italian man on the east coast who was a charming, handsome, and Italian “salesman” in the banking industry.  His name was Charles Ponzi.  Perhaps the charm and bravado that comes from having the passionate and romantic heritage of Italy allowed Italian men to (seemingly easily) gather people’s money.  Perhaps the Italian culture was a more enthusiastic one, a priceless differentiator when selling to the descendants of stoic European cultures.  Nevertheless, quite the opposite of Ponzi, Giannini did business the honest way with no shortcut nor scheme.  If Ponzi were an ethical businessperson, perhaps he would have rivaled Giannini in the banking industry. 

One instance that shows Giannini’s brilliant resilience and go-get-‘em attitude was the disaster of April 18, 1906 where an earthquake and huge fire destroyed much of San Francisco.  He had arrived at his saloon-turned-bank that morning to find the fire only one block away.  Immediately, he commandeered a garbage carriage and put all the money and gold into it.  He then transported the bank’s resources to a safe place (burying the liquid assets in his backyard immediately).  The brilliance and problem-solving nature of Giannini continued to show throughout the rest of his life – he understood that while all his competitors were literally in flames, he could service people with their capital and loans when they needed it most!  As such, he built a great public relation and trust with the community from that moment on.  He even set up his bank on a table at a dock until San Francisco’s condition stabilized.  It is unclear if, at this point, Giannini’s intention was to leverage his business to greater heights through his actions or if he just wanted to do what was right.  Though his intention is unclear, he nevertheless ended up benefitting from such a catastrophe.  The man’s quick actions and confidence seemed to have a touch equivalent to that of King Midas.

On top of his keen marketing approaches, A.P. was very efficient.  “I long since mastered the knack of thinking on whatever subject was in my mind whenever anyone started and kept on talking about something of no interest to me. I can let such a conversation go on at one ear and out at the other without ever interfering with my own mental machinery,” perhaps the man really was some sort of anomaly of a human being that could even multi-task his thinking during an engaged conversation!

A.P.’s momentum compiled and compounded.  In 1907, he anticipated a banking collapse and was quick to accumulate as much gold as he could (in order to retain his bank’s resource value).  Not only did he have a stake in doing well for his clientele, but he also had an intrinsic motivation to outcompete the other banks in the area.  Giannini wanted to be the top dog.  Following this crash, when the market was at a general low and Bank of Italy was at a high, Giannini purchased other banks.  Since he was successful against the other competitors in his market, the other banks (in a move of desperation) appealed to state legislature to limit branch banking.  The lobbyist-businesspeople lost the appeal.  Thus, throughout his 30s, A.P. built Bank of Italy to a healthy and growing state.  He hit his stride in his 40s and compounded his momentum all the way up until his death at 79 years old.

Another challenge that A.P. underwent included the passing of the McFadden Act in 1927.  The act sought to give national banks competitive equality with state-chartered banks by letting national banks branch to the extent permitted by state law. The McFadden Act specifically prohibited interstate branching by allowing each national bank to branch only within the state in which it is situated.  Although this stifling regulation within his industry made things more difficult for Bank of Italy, Giannini responded by exploiting a provision within the law to acquire more banks.  He strategically navigated regulations, seeing them as an opportunity for his firm and a barrier to his competitors.  An eternal optimist – Giannini rose to his greatest heights whenever challenged.

A.P. was continually trying to prove something to himself – that he could do “it”.  Whether that “it” was getting up at midnight to work and study all day, having the most successful produce business in the area, or operating the greatest bank in the U.S., Amadeo Pietro Giannini found amusement in chasing the next challenge.  “Work does not wear me out.  It buoys me up”, he would proclaim.  Throughout his second venture of Bank of Italy, he found motivation in his dream of making entrepreneurship possible throughout the United States.  A.P. was truly an “entrepreneur’s entrepreneur”.

During this closer look at A.P. Giannini’s life, we uncovered his circumstance pre-birth and during life.  However, his life’s story is incomplete until we look at his afterlife (if such a thing exists).  Was Giannini a Christian?  Moreover, was he a good enough Christian to enter heaven?  After this look into the eternally optimistic life of Giannini, biblical logic would reason that indeed he might now be in heaven.  If there is a heaven, Giannini is in charge of its bank.  

A mere mortal such as I, the author of this paper, am not the judge of who may enter celestial paradise.  Through research, nothing was mentioned of A.P.’s moral principles.  However, A.P. was a man of action – and his actions contained biblical principles clear and apparent. The man did not put wealth on a pedestal nor as a priority.  As we know, “it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:24).  Unlike other “men who made America”, Giannini was not a rich man – his wealth never surpassed more than $500,000 though he stewarded the resources of millions of people when they needed it most.

An epic effect of a man who sculpted the socio-economic United States as we know it now had to have had an amazing story.  Additionally, the man would have to have an amazing “why”, causing him to progress towards what resulted in a height of entrepreneurialism that could have only been dreamed of.  We now know that his chief motivator was an intrinsic craving to defeat challenges – both in business and in life.

Works Cited

Forbes, B.C. “Men Who Are Making the West.” Men Who Are Making the West, by B. C. Forbes, B.C. Forbes Publishing Co.

“Taurus Zodiac Sign Taurus Horoscope.” Astrology Zodiac Signs, http://www.astrology-zodiac-signs.com/zodiac-signs/taurus/.

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/giannini_hi.html.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “A.P. Giannini.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 31 May 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/A-P-Giannini.

Gladwell, Malcolm, 1963-. Outliers : The Story of Success. New York :Little, Brown and Co., 2008. Print.

“A. P. Giannini.” Biography of Nellie Bly — Pioneer of Investigative Reporting, agilewriter.com/Biography/Giannini.htm.

Christopher Columbus and His Mysterious Family Tree… | My Italian Family | Family Tree, Italian Citizenship, Records & Trips, http://www.myitalianfamily.com/stories/tragedy-triumph-ap-giannini-and-his-bank-america.

“Giannini, Amadeo Peter (1870-1949), Banker | American National Biography.” (1830-1885), Writer and Reformer | American National Biography, 16 June 2017, http://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1000626.