Amadeo P Giannini (1870–1949)
One hundred years ago, a regular person could not simply walk into a bank and open an account – current accounts, mortgages and loans were very much the preserve of the rich. Amadeo P Giannini changed all of that, transforming modern international banking and creating the largest bank in the country (at that time) in the process.
Following a successful career in the Californian produce industry, Giannini became a banker at the age of 34, more by accident than by design, when the death of his father-in-law forced him to take up his position on the board of a small bank in San Francisco.
Having done so, Giannini was frustrated at how the bank would only lend to wealthy clients. Enduring countless arguments with the other directors he fought desperately to convince the company that lending to the working classes was not only morally right, but could also be immensely profitable. His experience as the son of Italian immigrants taught him how hard-working and trustworthy the working and middle classes could be.
Unsuccessful in his pleas, Giannini branched out on his own, opening his own bank in 1904. From the outset, Giannini was determined to ‘fight for the little people’, routinely lending money to farmers and labourers and encouraging poor immigrants to deposit money with him rather than keeping it as cash.
In the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, realising the desperation of many of the city’s working classes whose homes and businesses had been destroyed, Giannini went down to the beachfront and set up shop by placing a plank of wood over two barrels, firm in the belief that San Francisco would rise from the ashes. From here Giannini began to lend money to small businesses and individuals desperately in need – in some cases receiving only a handshake by way of his his guarantee.
His actions that day made him a local hero and were to change his life forever. He realised the life-changing power that banking could provide to the ordinary man. From that day forward, he was determined to develop his bank into a nationwide system of branches, bringing money and financial services to everyone, regardless of their wealth.
By the time of his death, Giannini’s ‘Bank of America’ was the largest bank in the US, and the largest privately held bank in the world. After his death, much of his fortune was left to a foundation for medical research.
Despite his huge success, Giannini never took much money out of his business for himself. This led to his nickname ‘the reluctant millionaire’ – he was never really in it for the money. In its infancy, the movie industry was seen as high-risk, and potentially just a craze. Giannini saw past this, helping to fund among other projects many Charlie Chaplin films, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind and the majority of Walt Disney’s early movies.
Robert Vesco (1935–2007)
For four years in a row, Robert Lee Vesco was listed on Forbes’ wealthiest people in the world report. His occupation? According to Forbes’ – ‘Thief’.
Born the son of a Detroit autoworker in 1935, Vesco grew up to live one of finance’s most colourful careers. Vesco maintained that he always had three goals in life: “To get the hell out of Detroit, be president of a corporation and become a millionaire!” Soon after dropping out of engineering school in his early 20s he had achieved all three.
Initially joining an investment firm, Vesco entered into the aluminium broking industry. Through a series of highly leveraged hostile takeovers and debt‐fuelled expansions, his business, International Controls Corporation, grew rapidly. By the age of 33, Vesco’s stake in ICC was worth over $50m (£32m).
In 1970, Vesco mounted a successful takeover bid for a $1.5bn Swiss‐based offshore mutual fund called Investor Overseas Services. A cocktail of high leverage, creative accounting and corporate greed turned the deal nasty when the founder, Bernard Cornfeld, was jailed and Vesco was accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the company. To make matters worse, not only was the scandal one of the largest frauds in history, but it involved many high-profile figures in finance, business, politics and even royalty.
Vesco fled, taking with him $200m (close to $1bn in today’s terms). For the next 35 years, Vesco drifted between many Caribbean islands, earning his nickname of ‘the undisputed king of the fugitive financiers’.
During his life on the run, Vesco was to become involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, making an illegal contribution to Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign, attempting to set up his own country in the Caribbean and plotting to bribe US officials to allow Libya to buy American military planes. In Costa Rica, Vesco donated large sums of money to the President, resulting in an extradition embargo, later to become known as the ‘Vesco Law’.
In the late 1970s, Vesco unsuccessfully tried to buy an outlying island off the coast of Antigua. He reportedly believed that, from there, he could establish his own country, thus avoiding an extradition to the US.
In 1982, Vesco settled in Cuba, where he grew a beard and lived under the alias of a Canadian citizen named ‘Tom Adams’. His precise activities in Cuba are unclear, however, he is reported to have been involved in helping Fidel Castro and the Cuban government to set up trading companies to circumvent the US embargo.
Vesco owned a private Boeing 707 jet, the ‘silver Phyllis’, complete with an on‐board sauna and a disco. The only other private Boeing 707 at the time belonged to the US president – ‘Air Force One’.
In the 1990s, Vesco, Donald Nixon (Richard Nixon’s nephew) and Fidel and Raul Castro began clinical trials on a ‘wonderdrug’ that claimed to boost immunity. On 31 May 1995, Vesco reportedly attempted to defraud Nixon and Castro, resulting in his arrest. Sentenced to 13 years in a Cuban jail for ‘fraud and illicit economic activity’, Vesco died of lung cancer in 2007.