Business & Real Estate

Transamerica to close most California operations, eliminate Folsom jobs

The Transamerica pyramid dominates the San Francisco skyline. The company is closing most of its California operations, eliminating 30 jobs in Folsom.
The Transamerica pyramid dominates the San Francisco skyline. The company is closing most of its California operations, eliminating 30 jobs in Folsom. Sacramento Bee file

It was the quintessential California company, with a landmark San Francisco skyscraper and almost 90 years worth of history.

Now Transamerica is shutting down nearly all of its California operations. Starting in February, the insurance conglomerate will eliminate 30 jobs in Folsom and 315 in Los Angeles, the remnants of what used to be a mammoth employment base. The decision means Transamerica is all but abandoning the state where it was founded, leaving just 20 workers in an asset-management division in San Francisco.

Transamerica is keeping its most famous California asset, the pyramid building at the edge of San Francisco’s financial district.

The 44-year-old pyramid, which once housed Transamerica’s headquarters, is now simply an office building leased out to commercial tenants. Transamerica has “no plans to sell it,” said spokesman Gregory Tucker. The 20 remaining employees work in a building next door to the pyramid.

The layoffs are part of a “strategic plan designed to enhance returns,” the company said in a prepared statement Thursday. Transamerica also announced the closure of its West Chester, Ohio, office. In addition, media reports in Iowa said the company is planning to lay off 120 employees at an office in Cedar Rapids.

All told, the company will lay off 800 workers “over the course of 2017,” it said. “Limiting our bases of operation and eliminating a number of positions will accelerate our efforts in support of expense reductions and operational efficiencies.”

Other than the pyramid, it has been years since Transamerica was a major presence in San Francisco. The company moved its U.S. headquarters to Baltimore and eliminated most of its San Francisco employment in the years following its 1999 sale to Dutch insurance giant Aegon N.V.

“It’s kind of disappeared as a big player,” said Dick Walker, a UC Berkeley geographer who specializes in economics.

Still, this week’s announcement represents a milestone of sorts in California history and serves as a commentary on the changes that have transformed the San Francisco and Northern California economic landscapes.

Transamerica was founded by A.P. Giannini. He was the legendary San Francisco entrepreneur who created the Bank of Italy, which became Bank of America. In 1928, Giannini created a holding company called Transamerica, and two years later he purchased a life insurer named Occidental and merged it into the holding company.

After Congress passed a law in 1956 to restrict the power of big banks, the Transamerica insurance business was spun off from Bank of America. The insurer, based in San Francisco, became a life insurance and financial services powerhouse. It also embraced the corporate diversification craze of the 1960s and 1970s, taking control of such far-flung enterprises as Budget Rent a Car and the United Artists movie and television production company.

Transamerica helped cement San Francisco’s reputation as a financial center, “the Wall Street of the West Coast,” said Sacramento city historian Marcia Eymann.

Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California and the former state librarian, called Transamerica “one of the foundational companies of 20th-century California.” He said its departure is “almost the last echo of A.P. Giannini” in the state.

The pyramid put Transamerica’s stamp on California once and for all. But when it opened in 1972, it was far from universally popular. At 853 feet, “it was considered too freaky, too big,” said Gray Brechin, another UC Berkeley geographer.

Eventually the building came to be accepted as a San Francisco icon. “As much as it was hated when it went up, it became the defining image of San Francisco,” Brechin said.

The pyramid has been San Francisco’s tallest building since it opened, although it will yield that title to the Salesforce Tower, which is still under construction but will top out at 1,070 feet.

Transamerica and Bank of America pulled their headquarters out of San Francisco following mergers in the late 1990s, about the time that the technology boom began taking over much of the region. Nonetheless, the Bay Area is still home to Wells Fargo, Visa and a host of investment banks and other financial services companies.

“A hell of a lot of money is managed out of San Francisco,” Walker said.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler