SAO PAULO (Reuters) -Lebanese-Brazilian financier Joseph Safra, who built a banking empire spanning from Brazil to Switzerland and a fortune that made him the world’s wealthiest banker, has died at the age of 82, Banco Safra said.
Safra helped run and expand his family’s commercial and private-banking realm, 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 the bank.
Safra was credited with making Banco Safra Brazil’s eighth largest bank by assets. The Swiss private banking arm of his group acquired Switzerland’s Bank Sarasin & Co in 2011, later rebaptized J. Safra Sarasin.
As a member of Brazil’s most prominent Jewish business clan, he was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs, 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.
The Safra Group also has a stake in banana producer Chiquita Brands International and real estate assets such as London’s 30 St Mary Axe, often known as ‘The Gherkin.’
Safra, who arrived in Brazil as a teenager nearly 70 years ago from Beirut with his father Jacob and brothers Edmond and Moise to set up a trade financing shop, 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 date 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.
Safra 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 reportedly paid $2.5 billion for Moise’s 50% 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 and Moise jointly 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.
Joseph Safra is survived by his wife Vicky and his four children.
One of his sons, Alberto, left Banco Safra about a year ago to found his own bank after a disagreement with his brother David about who would oversee a digital bank that would mark Safra’s debut in mass retail banking. That left David Safra in charge.
Earlier this year, Alberto launched ASA Bank, mainly focused on asset management.
Joseph’s son Jacob oversees the Safra units outside Brasil, including J. Safra Sarasin. Safra also has a daughter, Esther, who is not involved in the family’s businesses.