The Banker, the Earthquake, and Finding Opportunity in Adversity

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At about 5 AM on April 18, 1906, the world in and around San Francisco began to shake. On the sixth floor of the Palace hotel, Enrico Caruso was awakened by the shaking. From his window, he saw “the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling.” He heard cries and screams from the street below. The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire had begun.

Seventeen miles to the South, in San Mateo, Amadeo Giannini awoke to the shaking and immediately thought, “What is happening to my bank?” Six hours later, after traveling by train and on foot, he found out.

Looters filled the streets, but the safe at Giannini’s bank, the Bank of Italy, was still intact. That was the good news. The bad news was that fire was bearing down on the bank, so the money couldn’t stay there. The safe was too heavy to move, so Giannini and his friends would have to carry the money. In a city with no visible law enforcement, that was not a good idea.

So Giannini commandeered a garbage wagon from Ciabatta Cepollina, whose family came from the same part of Italy as his. They hid the money under the garbage, which included a lot of oranges. Then he made the long trip back to San Mateo, leaving his bank to burn along with most of the city.

In the meantime, Enrico Caruso and his valet caught a ferry to Oakland and then a train to New York. Most other people with the means to go elsewhere left San Francisco.

Giannini pondered what to do. He had the means to do what others with resources were doing. He could go somewhere else and start over. He didn’t do that. Other bankers in San Francisco put a six-month moratorium on lending so they could get their accounts in order. Giannini could have done that. He didn’t do that, either.

On April 20, two days after the quake, he set up shop at a makeshift desk on the Washington Street Wharf where supplies would be arriving,. People who came to the wharf for supplies would encounter Amadeo and his makeshift desk. It was also near the Italian North Beach neighborhood which had been devastated by the earthquake and fire.

Giannini placed a bag of gold prominently on the “desk” and announced grandly that “We are going to rebuild San Francisco.” Then Giannini began making loans “on a face and a signature” to people who wanted to rebuild.

Giannini was taking a risk but was an inspiring one. He said “we” will rebuild the city. He backed his words with his actions and his money that smelled like oranges.

Within a week the Bank of Italy secured temporary quarters. Giannini announced it with an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, which was being printed in Oakland. Deposits exceeded withdrawals within six weeks.

Amadeo Giannini and his Bank of Italy were already successful before the earthquake and fire. It would become the Bank of America, pioneer many retail banking innovations we take for granted today, and grow to be the largest bank in the country. It all happened sooner than it might have, though, because Amadeo Giannini found an opportunity in the disaster that was the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.

When adversity strikes, ask my mother’s favorite question: “What good can we make of this?”


When adversity strikes, some people run away.

When adversity strikes some people delay and “regroup.”

When adversity strikes some people swing into action.

You can’t inspire people unless they trust you.

When adversity strikes, find the pony.

When adversity strikes ask my mother’s question: “What good can we make of this?

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