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Joseph Safra, the last of Brazil’s “big bankers,” dies at 82

. Dec 10, 2020
joseph safra Joseph Safra. Photo: Getty

Brazilian financial markets mourn the passing of Joseph Safra, Brazil’s richest man, who died this morning at the age of 82. With an estimated net worth of USD 23.2 billion, Mr. Safra had struggled with health issues for several years. His press office announced he died of “natural causes.” Admired by Brazil’s finance community, his legacy lives on through his philanthropic work and Banco Safra, the bank his family built.

Born in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Mr. Safra arrived in Brazil at the age of 24, after completing his studies in England and working for the Bank of America in the U.S.

</p> <p>Born into a family of bankers, he eventually decided to join his father Jacob and brothers Moise and Edmond in running a financial institution they had established in Brazil, which would later become Banco Safra, currently the country&#8217;s <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2018/01/17/fintech-bank-concentration/">fourth-largest private bank</a>.</p> <p>Known for being a canny and conservative investor, Mr. Safra quickly transformed his bank into the go-to financial center for São Paulo’s rich and powerful. A &#8220;bankers&#8217; bank,&#8221; Safra introduced the first remunerated current accounts to Brazil, which are still used by most financial institutions today.</p> <p>His cautious approach to investment allowed him to thrive in Brazil&#8217;s harsh economy of the 1980s and 1990s, a period plagued by hyperinflation.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Alongside peers such as Unibanco’s Walter Moreira Sales and Itaú’s Olavo Setúbal, Mr. Safra was known as one of the great bankers of his time. “He was a visionary, one of the greatest bankers Brazil has ever known. They were very important in shaping the national financial system,” says Pablo Spyer, director of Mirae Asset, speaking to<strong> The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Due to no longer being at the helm of the international Safra Group, Mr. Safra&#8217;s death is unlikely to have an impact on the network&#8217;s daily business, which currently includes Banco Safra in Brazil, Swiss bank J. Safra Sarasin, the Safra National Bank of New York, several real estate properties — such as London’s Gherkin building &#8211; and even the banana grower Chiquita Brands International.</p> <p>Currently, his son David is captaining Banco Safra’s drive to broader retail markets, which includes mobile point-of-sale SafraPay, digital account AgZero — formerly Safra Wallet — and a foray into the heated autonomous investment agents market. There is no news on Mr. Safra&#8217;s succession, which could involve his sons Jacob — who lives abroad and oversees the group’s international business — and Alberto. The latter used to run Banco Safra’s corporate division but left in 2019 to fund ASA Bank — with the help of former Safra executives — after <a href="https://valor.globo.com/financas/noticia/2019/10/28/alberto-safra-deixa-banco-da-familia-e-abrira-novo-negocio.ghtml">rumours of a falling out</a> with David Safra.</p> <p>The quarrel was a rare example of turmoil in the Safra household, as late Joseph Safra had always made sure to stay away from the headlines, a lesson he passed on to his family. However, it echoes a 2004 dispute between Joseph and his brother Moise. After eldest brother Edmond Safra died in an arson attack at his home in Monaco in 1999, Moise refused to sell his shares in the bank to Joseph, who eventually founded a new bank, J. Safra, &#8220;right across the street.” After years of bleeding the original bank dry, Moise gave in and sold his stake to his brother, uniting the business once more at the now iconic Banco Safra headquarters on São Paulo&#8217;s Avenida Paulista.</p> <p>While there have been allegations of misdoings — last year, former Finance Minister Antonio Palocci <a href="https://epocanegocios.globo.com/Brasil/noticia/2019/08/delacao-de-palocci-propinas-repassadas-por-empresas-politicos-chegam-r-33359-milhoes.html">claimed</a> that Safra made campaign donations to Workers&#8217; Party politicians in exchange for illicit benefits, such as authorization of the sale of Joseph Safra&#8217;s stake in cellulose producer Aracruz to the Votorantim Group — these have done little to damage the group&#8217;s business, which is perhaps Mr. Safra&#8217;s biggest legacy.</p> <h2>“Seu José”</h2> <p>In Brazil, Joseph became “Seu José,” a respectful yet affectionate nickname that showed that — despite being born and raised in Lebanon — he was as Brazilian as they come. In a <a href="https://veja.abril.com.br/blog/radar/morre-o-banqueiro-e-filantropo-joseph-safra/">press statement</a> this morning, his family said Seu José was &#8220;always proud of his Brazilian citizenship and his love for [São Paulo football club] Corinthians.&#8221; </p> <p>They speak of his warm personality and devotion to his wife Vicky, sons Jacob, Alberto, David, and daughter Ester, as well as his 14 grandchildren, with whom “he loved to play and pass on the family traditions.”</p> <p>Despite his quiet private life, Mr. Safra became a well known philanthropist, as a generous donor to the Jewish community, hospitals Albert Einstein and Sírio Libanês, and some of Brazil’s largest NGOs.</p> <p>In 1995, he donated five works of art of French sculptor Auguste Rodin to São Paulo&#8217;s Pinacoteca museum, and gifted the original manuscript of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Before joining The Brazilian Report, she worked as an editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.

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