Read an Excerpt
New Ideas from Dead CEOs
Lasting Lessons from the Corner Office
A. P. Giannini: Bank of America
The Gladiator of Banking
He was a big man, but he was terrified. At 5:18 a.m., his wooden house shook and bucked like an insane bronco, tossing his pregnant wife out of bed. She clung to him; he was over six feet two, with massive shoulders and a chin they could have used on Mount Rushmore. But even he could not hold on as the floor beneath their feet turned to waves of sloshing sand and soil. Amadeo and Clorinda Giannini looked up at the writhing ceiling and then tore across the hallway to the bedrooms of their seven children, throwing their bodies over them, as continual jolts battered the walls for twenty-eight of the longest seconds of their lives. For their son Mario, a hemophiliac, a splintered post could be fatal.
And then silence. The walls shimmied but finally rested as the small children shrieked. They were among the lucky ones, for their house was in San Mateo, seventeen miles from the epicenter of the San Francisco earthquake on April 18, 1906. We still do not know exactly how many died—more than three thousand for sure—in the tightly packed city, where gas lines ripped open and the relentless flames tossed penniless wharf dwellers into the streets alongside the moneyed dowagers of Nob Hill. The fleeing and looting would soon begin. Amid the chaos and lawlessness, any sane person would fear for his life and his pocketbook.
Amadeo Peter, known as A.P., knew what he had to do next. He had to open his bank to the public. He had to defy the blocked roads, the roaming thugs, thejealous competitors. On this day when San Francisco turned into a flaming crucible, the postman stayed home. Herodotus's ancient promise about "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night" did not cover seismic eruptions. But the thirty-five-year-old A.P. held himself to a higher standard. He launched himself on a grueling trip just to cross the seventeen miles to his bank. The trains were jammed with mobs. Fearing damaged tracks, the engineers slowed the pace to a crawl. A.P. jumped off. He could thumb a ride or even walk faster, despite his lumbering gait. Five hours later, he trudged into the heart of the city, a city he could barely recognize through black smoke, pluming flames, and an endless series of explosions as firefighters dynamited buildings, hoping to rob the fires of kindling wood.
Was he insane? Hungry for power? For glory? Or just blindly devoted to the "little guy" who would need cash in a moment of despair? Not even A.P. himself knew, but by the time he reached his bank, he realized he had made a terrible mistake. Despite his size, his determination, and his fame, not even he could protect the bank's bags of silver and gold from the marauding gangs.
This chapter tells the story of a man who could stare into the eyes of ruthless outlaws, yet still trust his fellow man. A. P. Giannini invented modern banking because he, not the Morgans of New York, the Rothschilds of London, nor the Riggs of Washington, realized that small-business owners, family men, and yes, even housewives could be entrusted with money. Before A.P. came to San Francisco, banks were only for rich people, and the bars on the teller cages kept everyone in their cells. A.P. took a hacksaw to the bars and liberated the American economy from the past. Most countries around the world are still learning his lessons.
The Early Years
Before there was a Bank of America, there was a Bank of Italy, and before there was a Bank of Italy, there was a young Italian couple running the Swiss Hotel in San Jose, California. A.P.'s father, Luigi, was the son of a vineyard owner in Genoa, and his mother, a very young beauty named Virginia from the walled city of Lucca in Tuscany. In 1871, after making money on the bustling hotel, Luigi bought a forty-acre orchard that could make his relatives in the old country envious with its bright red strawberries and cherries. A.P. was born in 1870 and quickly learned to help with farmwork and to play games with friends in the fields.
The Gianninis provided just one story of the thousands of Italian immigrant tales that were created at the turn of the century in Northern California. The Most Happy Fella, a 1956 Broadway hit, with songs such as "Abbondanza" ("Abundance") and "She Gonna Come Home Wit' Me," featured Italian American orchard hands of this era. The number of Italians soared in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, second- and third-generation Italians made up one-fifth of the population, which included a youngster named Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, who in the streets of San Francisco would learn to hit a curveball as well as anyone ever would. While San Francisco bulged with gold rush speculators in the 1850s, by 1870 there was only one way to make money in the Bay Area: hard work. People rode the new transcontinental railroad not with sieves, seeking a glimmer of gold specks, but with shovels and rakes. The money was in the land, but you had to coax it out using a strong back. Between 1870 and 1890, the number of farms in the United States jumped by nearly 80 percent, to 4.5 million, as did the value of farm property.
Even as a boy A.P. witnessed the rich harvests and saw wagons and crates loaded onto steamers and trains bound for New York, Boston, and abroad. Though A.P. attended school in a one-room schoolhouse in Alviso, he did not grow up in some isolated rural outpost. He attended school with French, German, Armenian, and Greek children. Not even his teachers could pronounce his Italian name correctly, so they called him "Amador Jenning." A.P. lived on the edge of a new globalized world. All he lacked was the patience to watch it go by.New Ideas from Dead CEOs
Lasting Lessons from the Corner Office. Copyright © by Todd Buchholz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.