World’s richest banker Joseph Safra dies

Lebanese-born owner of London’s Gherkin was a financial giant

Joseph Safra's family business paid around £700 million for the Gherkin in London. Reuters/Getty Images
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The man regarded as the world's richest banker, whose financial group owns London’s Gherkin building, has died aged 82.

Lebanese-born banker Joseph Safra, who built an empire of over $85 billion in banking assets, died of natural causes in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Thursday.

Safra “leaves a legacy that will be followed by many generations,” his company Banco Safra said in a statement.

Joseph Yacoub Safra was born in 1938, in Beirut, Lebanon. A low profile but totemic figure in the financial industry, Safra came from a Jewish banking family with roots in Aleppo, Syria.

The Safra family dynasty began its foray into the financial world by financing camel-caravan traders in the Ottoman Empire.

Safra’s great uncle, Ezra, started the family business, and Joseph’s father Jacob expanded to Lebanon, before the family moved to Brazil after the Second World War. Banco Safra was established in 1957.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 21, 2002 Lebanese-Brazilian Joseph Safra speaks on his mobile phone as he arrives at a courthouse in Monaco for the start of the trial of former US soldier Ted Maher, accused of an arson attack that killed his brother Edmond. Joseph Safra, Brazil's richest man, died at 82 on December 10, 2020 in Sao Paulo. / AFP / Pascal GUYOT

His two brothers, Moises and Edmond, were famous bankers in their own right. Joseph took over running Banco Safra together with his younger brother, Moises, after older brother Edmond left to build banks in Europe and New York. Edmond, who built a separate multi-billion-dollar banking fortune, died in a fire in his home in Monaco in 1999. His nurse later admitted to causing the fire.

In August 2020, Forbes magazine ranked Safra as the 52nd richest person in the world, with a fortune estimated to be $22.8 billion.

In Brazil he owned Banco Safra, the country's eighth largest bank, and in Switzerland he owned J. Safra Sarasin, a finance house created in a 2013 merger.

Safra also owned 50 per cent banana grower Chiquita Brands International.

In 2014, Safra paid more than £700 million to acquire the Gherkin, one of the British capital’s most distinctive buildings. The billionaire also tried to get approval to build a new skyscraper in London. Dubbed the Tulip, the proposal to erect the Norman Foster-designed building was rejected by London mayor Sadiq Khan last year. Safra appealed his decision.

Safra’s $2.3bn real estate portfolio includes Madison Avenue in New York and a 130-room mansion in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The Safra family were known to approach banking cautiously, with Jacob famously saying: “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.”

As well as his own businesses, Safra "supported countless social, religious and cultural causes, such as the construction and renovation of hospitals, day care centres, museums and religious temples of all faiths," Safra Group said.

Safra had been battling with illness for some time and his three sons — Jacob, David and Alberto — were gradually taking on more of the family businesses.

He is survived by his wife, Vicky, whom he married in 1969, their four children and 14 grandchildren.

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