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Moise Safra - obituary
Moise Safra was a financier who, with his brother, built up an international banking empire
Moise Safra, right, with Theodore Kheel, a labour lawyer and long-time associate, in 1966
Moise Safra, right, with Theodore Kheel, a labour lawyer and long-time associate, in 1966 Photo: NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
5:38PM BST 19 Jun 2014
Moise Safra, the Brazilian financier and philanthropist, who has died aged 79, was one of a trio of migrant brothers from Beirut who each amassed multi-billion-dollar fortunes.
Moise Yacoub Safra was born on April 27 1935, the third of four sons of Jacob Safra, a Sephardic Jew from Aleppo in Syria who had established a banking and gold trading business in Beirut in 1920; his forebears had been bankers in the region since the days of the Ottoman Empire, when they financed camel caravans between Aleppo, Constantinople and Alexandria.
Among the lessons Jacob taught his sons were always to look customers in the eye (“For eyes tell more than balance sheets”), and “Build your bank as you would your boat, with the strength to sail safely through any storm”. The family’s hallmarks in business were financial conservatism and total discretion on behalf of their wealthy private clients, many of whom were also Sephardim.
When anti-Jewish riots in Beirut followed the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Safras looked for safer havens. They moved first to Italy, and in 1952 joined a wave of Jewish migrants to Brazil. In Sao Paolo they founded the Banco Safra, which began by financing letters of credit for traders and grew to be one of the largest private banks in the country.
Three Safra brothers were originally involved in the business. But the elder, Edmond, moved on swiftly to Geneva and New York to pursue his own expansive banking projects, selling his interest in the Brazilian venture to Moise and their younger brother Joseph. It was Joseph who took the lead in building the Safra Group into a multinational empire with banks in New York and Luxembourg, and a range of other interests from mobile phone networks to timber and cattle ranching. In 1990 they also acquired the fifth largest bank in Israel, First International — but did not allow it to adopt Safra branding until they were certain it matched their standards of prudence.
They had also been taught by their father never to become over-prominent in the communities in which they did business. In Brazil that instinct was reinforced by the constant risk of kidnap — which indeed befell one of their nephews. The brothers habitually commuted by helicopter, with a squad of bodyguards trained by Israeli agents.
Moise concerned himself particularly with the management of their industrial portfolio. In 2006 he sold his half-share in the main group to Joseph for some $2.5 billion — it was thought that they had disagreed over the strategic direction of their banks, though they remained joint owners of a cellulose pulp business.
Moise also made major real estate investments in his own right, including Plantation Place, a vast development off Fenchurch Street in the City of London for which he paid almost £500 million in 2012. In partnership with Chinese investors, he acquired a $700 million stake in the General Motors building on Fifth Avenue in New York in 2013.
Devoutly observant, Moise Safra supported many Jewish charities in Brazil, funding education, health care projects and synagogues and seeking reconciliation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. In the United States he endowed an economics professorship at Harvard and bought a row of Manhattan town houses for use as a Sephardic community centre.
His ailing elder brother Edmond died in 1999 in an arson attack on his penthouse apartment in Monte Carlo; an American nurse-bodyguard was convicted of the crime, and Edmond’s Brazilian-born widow Lily inherited much of his wealth. Joseph Safra remains at the helm of the Safra Group, and the family has been listed (by Forbes) as the second richest in Brazil with a combined fortune of around $20 billion.
Moise Safra is survived by his wife, Chella (née Cohen), who is treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, and their three sons and two daughters.
Moise Safra, born April 27 1935, died June 14 2014
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