Banking legend Edmond Safra had Swiss connection

(Reuters) -- Edmond Safra, killed in a fire in his Monaco home after an attack by knife-wielding assailants on Friday, was the cosmopolitan scion of a Jewish-Lebanese family that owns banks around the world.

This content was published on December 3, 1999 minutes

(Reuters) -- Edmond Safra, killed in a fire in his Monaco home after an attack by knife-wielding assailants on Friday, was the cosmopolitan scion of a Jewish-Lebanese family that owns banks around the world.

Starting in his 20s, Safra built a banking empire that made him a billionaire. It included trading businesses and financial services for the wealthy, and its success made him a confessor and adviser to the world's political and business elite.

His brothers, Brazilian bankers Joseph and Moise, own banks in Israel, Brazil and the United States. Safra himself had homes in New York, Paris and Geneva but spent most of his time in Monaco.

Safra, who was married to a Brazilian but had no children with her, was born in Beirut in 1932. He had been heard to say that his banks were his "children".

His ancestors were gold traders and bankers in Aleppo, Syria, during the days of the Ottoman Empire. The family relocated to Beirut when the empire fell apart after World War I and moved to Europe and the Americas to start banking businesses in the late 1940s.

The financier had banking and trading in his blood from an early age. At 16, he was dispatched to Italy to set up a trading company.

The family moved to Brazil in 1953 and set up trading operations there. Safra sold his Brazilian interests to his brothers in 1962 and moved to Geneva to start a private bank.

Safra's U.S. beginnings were humble enough. He opened Republic National Bank of New York as a small retail bank in 1966. The bank was the first to give away televisions and home appliances to draw new deposits. It started to offer mortgages, and trust services after it bought Kings Lafayette Bank in 1974.

In line with Safra's background, the bank started to trade gold and had become one of the biggest players in that business by 1980.

Safra also built up his European private bank, the Trade Development Bank, which he sold to financial services firm American Express Co AXP.N> in 1983. After an acrimonious falling out, Safra left TDB in 1985 to set up another bank in Geneva.

Safra successfully defended himself against allegations that his bank laundered drug money in the high-profile row that ensued. It ended when American Express paid a multi-million-dollar settlement that was donated to charity.
Safra founded another European private banking operation, Safra Republic Holdings SASR.LU>, in 1988. He was putting the finishing touches on the sale of the Republic empire in the United States and Europe to HSBC Holdings Plc HSBA.L>.

In an unusual step, Safra agreed to take a $450 million cut on the sale in November, after it was deadlocked following charges levelled at a U.S. fund manager for a fraud scheme, who was a major client of Republic.
Safra's road to banking riches was at times anything but smooth.

Republic New York lent heavily to Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s, but had to write off most of these loans near the end of the decade after the debt of these countries was restructured.

More recently, Safra got hit by big trading losses and writedowns in Russia, after that country basically defaulted on its foreign obligations last year. In response, the bank
cut jobs and reorganised its businesses.

Safra owned 31 million Republic New York shares, worth about $2.2 billion, and had a 21 percent direct stake in Safra Republic worth about $1 billion when he decided to sell.

Safra last year disclosed he had Parkinson's disease, a degenerative illness. He was withdrawing from active banking, although he said he would ensure a smooth transition in the sale to HSBC.

Edmond was a banker "24 hours a day and never did a deal he doesn't understand," one source said.

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