World’s richest banker Joseph Safra dies aged 82

Joseph Safra, a Lebanese-born financier who became the world’s richest banker after building an international business empire from his adopted country Brazil, has died aged 82.

The scion of a banking dynasty that started by financing camel caravans in Ottoman times from Syria, Safra followed his father Jacob to Brazil as a migrant in 1962 and helped build the family business into one of Latin America’s biggest financial institutions.

Famous for his discretion and conservatism, Safra chaired until his death the Safra Group, a conglomerate spanning banking, property, cellulose and bananas. Forbes magazine estimated his wealth this month at US$23.2bn (NZ$32.7 billion), making him the world’s 63rd richest person and its wealthiest banker.

A statement from Safra announcing his death from natural causes described “Seu José”, as his friends used to call him, as an “affable and perspicacious man who dedicated his life to his family, friends, business and social causes”.

In the office, Safra was renowned for his attention to detail, an exacting work ethic and careful analysis of business risk. “Even up there you will surely be watching the whole business carefully,” Luiz Fernando Loureiro, a former employee of the bank, said on social media.

The Safras’ extensive global property portfolio includes London’s Gherkin building, one of the City’s most distinctive landmarks, purchased for £726m (NZ$1.3 billion) in 2014. In New York the family’s holdings include the office condominium at 660 Madison, the building that housed the Barney’s department store until it filed for bankruptcy last year.

Despite his immense wealth and business success, Mr Safra shunned publicity. He rarely gave interviews, avoided social columns, stayed married to the same woman his entire life and eschewed the extravagant lifestyle of some fellow billionaires.

“His legacy in the development of the national economy will forever be marked in the history of Brazil, a country he adopted 58 years ago,” said Isaac Sidney, president of the national banking association Febraban. “Joseph Safra was also an example as an entrepreneur and a philanthropist.”

The scion of a Sephardi Jewish family, Safra was born in Beirut in 1938 and was guided by his father Jacob, who left the Middle East in the turbulent aftermath of the establishment of the state of Israel, fearing a third world war. Jacob chose Brazil as a safe haven and prospered in its business capital, São Paulo, from where the family played a key role in shaping global private banking.

Jacob’s advice was enshrined as the Safra group’s motto: “If you choose to sail upon the seas of banking, build your bank as you would your boat, with the strength to sail safely through any storm”.

Famous for his conservative business decisions, rivals in Brazil used to joke that Safra only lent to people who did not need the money. His prudence meant that the family business empire avoided the need for bailouts in the multiple financial crises that have punctuated Brazil’s recent history, though critics complained it was sometimes slow to innovate.

Tragedy struck the family when Safra’s oldest brother, Edmond, died in an arson attack at his Monte Carlo apartment in 1999. Edmond’s US nurse, former Green Beret Ted Maher, was later convicted of starting the fire and jailed. The financier’s untimely death led to a family battle over Edmond’s banking assets, according to Brazil’s O Estado newspaper.

After his brother Moise refused to sell his share in the family business, Joseph started a rival bank in São Paulo across the street called J Safra, which competed with the main family-owned bank for the same clients. The pair only reached an agreement to resolve their differences when Moise sold out to Joseph in 2006 after two years of negotiations.

“It was simply about different ideas — brothers who fight because they want different things,” said Rodrigo Marcatti, chief executive of Veedha Investimentos, who worked at Safra at the time. “Each wanted to go in a different direction. Pride ends up speaking louder. If it were two professionals carrying the company, they would have reached a consensus.”

The family was in the news again in 2016, when Brazilian prosecutors charged Safra with corruption. They alleged that he knew of plans to bribe tax officials to drop the pursuit of large tax debts owed by his companies. Safra denied the allegations, and the charges were dropped the same year.

In Switzerland, the family’s interests include J Safra Sarasin, a private bank created out of the acquisition of Sarasin in 2011. Their international interests include Safra National Bank of New York and a 50 per cent share of the banana grower Chiquita, the latter acquired in 2014.

Known for his philanthropy and love for the arts, the banker maintained a spacious mansion behind high walls in São Paulo’s Morumbi neighbourhood, where gated communities rub up against one of the city’s largest favelas.

“If I could go back in time I wouldn’t have built such a big house,” he once said, adding that he felt guilty for living in a palace while many families suffered in poverty.

Safra donated Rodin sculptures to a São Paulo public museum, money to two hospitals in the city and funded the construction of a lavish synagogue. The family’s best-known gift came via the Jacob Safra Foundation, which gave Albert Einstein’s original manuscript on the theory of relativity to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The billionaire banker spent the final years of his life in Switzerland. Brazilian media reported that he had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

One of nine siblings, Mr Safra is survived by his wife Vicky, four children and 14 grandchildren.

– Financial Times

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