Joseph Safra, the Lebanese-Brazilian financier who has died aged 82, was Brazil’s richest man and for many years the world’s wealthiest banker.
Safra helped run and expand his family’s private-banking and wealth management empire, catering to an affluent clientele from São Paulo to New York and Monte Carlo. He died of natural causes, according to a statement issued by Banco Safra.
As a member of Brazil’s most prominent Jewish business clan, Safra was credited with making Banco Safra one of Brazil’s soundest banks. He was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs in Brazil, spending a great deal of his time and fortune funding health, education and charity projects and paying for the construction of synagogues and community centers.
The Safras stood out among a number of Brazilian families whose businesses grew transnational, yet remained loyal to their ethnic roots. While banking was the axis of his activities, Safra also sought to diversify his wealth by investing in paper and pulp, global real estate, telecoms and cattle ranching.
Safra, who arrived in Brazil as a teenager more than five decades ago, ranks as the world’s wealthiest banker, with an estimated fortune of $19.9 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.
His family’s roots in banking dates back five generations. Joseph Safra’s predecessors banked the Ottoman Empire’s caravan trade between the Syrian city of Aleppo, Alexandria in Egypt and Constantinople in Turkey.
He seldom granted interviews, saying he avoided speaking Portuguese in public for fear of “being misunderstood.” However, his efforts to keep a low profile were punctuated by ruthless boardroom battles, even with members of his own family.
A fluent speaker of Arabic, English and four other languages, he migrated to Brazil from Beirut with his father Jacob and brothers Edmond and Moise to set up a trade financing shop. He reportedly paid $2.5 billion for Moise’s 50 percent stake in Banco Safra in 2006, putting an end to years of disputes over the direction of the bank.
The Safras were also known in Brazil for their obsession with personal security. Edmond, Joseph’s older brother and one of the most prominent private bankers of the past century, died in 1999 in an arson attack on his Monte Carlo penthouse that shocked the banking world.
Joseph Safra will be remembered for his active philanthropy, Shliach Rabbi Yossi Schildkraut said in an interview.
Both Joseph and Moise funded the construction of the largest synagogue in Brazil, an ornate structure serving Sao Paulo’s Sephardic Jews, and the restoration of the country’s first synagogue, in the northeastern city of Recife.
“He was always ready to help, even if that didn’t mean being around to discuss the day-to-day events,” Schildkraut said in an interview years ago. “His devotion to the preservation of the Jewish traditions in Brazil is priceless.”
Joseph Safra is survived by his wife Vicky and his four children.