Pioneer Banker/ Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini is Jumping Out of His Grave


A.P. Giannini’s Four Rules of Success

* Pick a business you love.

* Save $1000 and invest it in that same business.

* Own your own home.

* Know what you want to be doing a year from today.


Mr. Giannini’s formula drew nationwide attention when it was published in Coronet magazine in 1945, four years before his death.

When A.P. Giannini died in the summer of 1949, San Mateo residents were”irked” by press reports that mistakenly identified the world famous banker’s home address as Hillsborough.

On the surface, the misinformation appeared insignificant, a minor
error, but it was no small matter to many Peninsulans who took pride that the legendary “people’s banker” had resided on El Cerrito Avenue in San Mateo for decades.

Some locals were sufficiently miffed to interrupt their summer vacations in order to fire-off telegrams to this very newspaper. The San Mateo Times responded by quietly alerting United Press, and the dateline on A.P. Giannini’s obituary was quickly changed from Hillsborough to San Mateo.

It was an honest mistake. “Seven Oaks”, the ten-room English
Tudor-style house owned by the founder of the Bank of Italy, forerunner to the Bank of America, stood within steps of the Hillsborough community. El Cerrito Avenue was a borderline street, with one-third belonging to Hillsborough, and the other two-thirds located in the city of San Mateo. Giannini’s gabled house, unpretentious, surrounded by an acre of garden, was unquestionably located in San Mateo.

Although the 6’2″ A.P. Giannini cut an impressive figure, he did not match the portrait of the traditional banker. He was the son of Italian immigrants whose experience was limited to his success in the produce business.

Perhaps it was fitting that A.P. didn’t have that exclusive Hillsborough address. For in that lofty community the stuffy wasp bankers were disdainful of the produce man who set out to modernize their way of doing business.

They learned that A.P. was a pioneer who would revolutionize the banking industry. Giannini believed in the average man, reaching out to him as a customer, and while the staid bankers were looking down their noses at Giannini, A.P. was building the world’s largest bank.

The differences between Giannini and his Hillsborough neighbors were profound. In the 1920s, for example, when golf was gaining popularity and business deals were closed at the 18th hole, he  ventured that golf was all right in its place but that place was not during business hours. For exercise, A.P. recommended brisk walks.

He wasn’t keen on society functions, either. “They waste a lot of time of the man who loves his work,” he explained.

Hard work consumed A.P. Giannini, and was the key to his great success in two such seemingly divergent fields as produce and high finance. When A.P. was opening Bank of America branches in towns and villages throughout California, he said he worked such long hours that he often fell asleep while dining with his wife, Clorinda, at “Seven Oaks”.

He didn’t believe in obstacles, just challenges, like the challenge of
selling the new idea of a “department store bank” willing to lend money to cover medical expenses for a new baby, a college education or a home. When a depositor died, the bank would even execute his will.

“It’s a bank that does everything but blow your nose for you,” said a critic.

But by having the bank involved in every aspect of the customer’s life, Giannini democratized banking. His accomplishments have been praised as a “one-man saga”, and during his lifetime A.P. never surrendered power over his bank.

A.P.’s father, Luigi was a native of Genoa, Italy who traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area as a young man where he worked as a farm laborer. He saved his money, and found his bride in Italy, marrying Virginia De Martini, a neighbor’s daughter. The couple returned to San Jose where their first son, Amadeo Peter (“A.P.”), was born on May 6, 1870.

A few years later Luigi moved the family to an apricot farm among the orchards in nearby Alviso, changing occupation to fruit peddling. But tragedy struck the Giannini family when the little boy witnessed the slaying of his father during an argument with a farmhand.

A.P.’s mother, Virginia, married Lawrence Scatena, an ambitious teamster who worked as a trucker for a San Francisco produce commission house. The family moved to the City about 1879 where A.P. attended grammar school. But the restless lad thought only of business and getting ahead.

As restless as his stepson, Lawrence Scatena studied the way things were done at the produce commission house, and believed he could do it better. Scatena’s commission house prospered and it provided the perfect training ground for young A.P.

In those days river boats arrived after dark at the San Francisco piers where fruit and vegetables were unloaded. The evening air was filled with the wondrous aroma of fresh produce along with the high pressure excitement of dealers shouting, haggling, and gesticulating until they got their price, and all the produce was sold, and carted off in horse-drawn wagons.

Young A.P. was so drawn to this bazaar that he couldn’t be dissuaded from going there night after night. He was 12-years-old when he quit school and went to work for his stepfather’s commission house. He found his calling. Three years later he was signing contracts for carloads of apricots and lemons. He developed an impeccable instinct for timing when to buy and how much to pay.

The produce business allowed A.P. to get to know farmers on a first-name basis throughout the state. He understood their problems and learned that they had little trust in banks. A.P.’s grasp of agrarian interests would pay rich dividends later on.

At age 19 he acquired partial ownership in his stepfather’s business, earning as much as $1500 a month. Two years later he was made a partner, and soon wed Clorinda Cuneo, the daughter of a prosperous businessman. The Gianninis settled in San Mateo  where three children were born: Lawrence Mario, Virgil and Claire.

By 1900 L. Scatena & Co. was one of the biggest produce commission houses in San Francisco, and the 30-year-old Giannini was easily recognized by his jet-black handlebar mustache.

By then most of the produce competitors had been conquered and A.P. was looking for fresh challenges. That opportunity came when A.P.’s wife inherited an  interest in a small San Francisco bank that served the Italian-American community.

Brimming with ideas, A.P. was appointed a director but was forced out when his radical proposals for serving a broader spectrum of the community were rejected. If this reversal was expected to discourage A.P., it didn’t.

“When they closed the windows on A.P., he came up through the floor.” He opened his own bank, the Bank of Italy in 1904, predecessor to the world famous Bank of America.

In the early days of the 20th century, San Francisco was an
international gold and banking center. Wells Fargo and Crocker National were the traditional, dignified leaders. The produce man and his bank surely amused them, and they predicted it would fail.

But while the established bankers were wooing corporate clients at the golf links, A.P. set his sights on doing business with the masses of small depositors. It was said that A.P. introduced the spirit of F.W. Woolworth Co. to modern banking
He pioneered “high-pressure” salesmanship in the banking field, and was the first to advertise for depositors, starting with foreign language newspapers, according to a 1947 Saturday Evening Post article. At the time advertising for depositors was unheard of. A.P. was called a “huckster” and worse.

As always, A.P. responded to challenge. The 1906 earthquake and fire provided a supreme challenge for all San Franciscans. He was sleeping at his San Mateo home when the earth began shaking violently, and after reassuring his frightened family, he caught the Southern Pacific commuter train headed for San Francisco. But when the smoke-filled sky south of the City came into view, the train ground to a halt, and A.P. walked the rest of the way.

When he arrived at his bank, he was amazed to find it open for business. Fortunately, the cashier was able to pick up the bank’s valuable gold, notes and securities from the Crocker Bank’s vaults, where they were stored nightly.

Fearful of the threatening nearby fires, Giannini got produce wagons from his old commission house and loaded them with the bank’s gold. To conceal the wagon’s contents, he covered them with crates or oranges and vegetables. Accompanied by several employees, A.P. and the convoy headed south toward the safety of his home in San Mateo where the bank’s treasure was buried in the garden.

Giannini estimated correctly that the devastating earthquake would lead to an explosion of rebuilding. While other bankers mulled over their next move, A.P.’s bank stayed open, making loans, especially to residents of the North Beach district, among the first of the neighborhoods to rise from the ashes.

The bank’s spectacular growth greatly benefited from the 1909 California law allowing statewide branch banking. A.P. could be seen in his chauffeur-driven 1908 model Packard searching every town and village for future branch locations and customers.

When he spotted a farmer he knew from his old days as a produce dealer, A.P. invited the man into the car. Employing his legendary salesmanship, he proceeded to sign the fellow up for a savings account.

“Branch banking,” Giannini once said, “is the only way a small town can get the resources, brain power and equipment of a billion dollar bank.”

By the 1940s, the Bank of America had extended its tentacles throughout the state. Local branches were instantly recognizable by the square columned Renaissance-style buildings.

A.P. Giannini brought banking to the people, and was willing to add the average guy to his roll of borrowers as long as they were “gainfully employed”.

Three years before his death at age 79 in San Mateo, during the
post-WWII  boom years, A.P. received the startling news that the Bank of America had become the world’s largest bank.

A.P. Giannini wouldn’t recognize the banking industry as it exists today but he permanently etched his place in history as the “Big Bull of the West.


A “not-new” Story by June Morrall