BORN ALEPPO, SYRIA, APRIL 27, 1935. DIED SAO PAOLO, BRAZIL, JUNE 14, 2014, AGED 79
KNOWN AS the Rothschild of Brazil, Moise Safra, who has died at the age of 79 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, was a financier and philanthropist who built up a multibillion dollar banking empire with his two brothers. With an estimated wealth of £.1.3 bn, he became one of Brazil’s richest men and the 835th wealthiest in the world.
Deeply concerned with his Judaism, one of his main charitable missions was to reconcile Sephardi and Ashkenazi differences and he donated to many Jewish charities in Brazil. He spent much time funding synagogues and community centres, but he financed education and health, too. He was a member of Brazil’s most powerful Jewish business clan who remained attached to their roots despite entrepreneurial success.
Moise was one of eight children and the third of four sons born to Jacob Safra, a Sephardi Jew from Aleppo, a banker trading in gold in Beirut, a business he had established in 1920. It was in fact a banking dynasty dating back to the Ottomon Empire, which originally financed the caravan trade between between Aleppo, Constantinople and Alexandria.
The three brothers emigrated from Beirut in the wake of antisemitic riots at the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. After a spell in Italy they made the move to Brazil with other Jewish migrants. There they founded the Banco Safra which grew to become one of the largest private banks in the country.
Each brother, having inherited the Safra paternal business acumen, grew his own business portfolio to the tune of billions of dollars. Their hallmark was based on a deceptively simple doctrine handed to them by their father. It was always to look the customer in the eye –“for eyes tell more than balance sheets”. Another piece of advice that Joseph never forgot was not to become too high profile in their business communities, an intuitive response to the risk of kidnap. One of their nephews was in fact kidnapped, and with this in mind, the brothers tended to commute by helicopter, backed by a squad of Israeli agent-trained bodyguards.
After Mose’s eldest brother Edmond moved on to Geneva and New York in 1956, to pursue banking interests of his own, Moise and the youngest brother Joseph, started to build the Safra Group expanding its banking interests to New York and Luxembourg. They spread their wings into mobile phones, timber and even cattle ranching, and acquired in 1990 Israel’s 5th largest bank, First International. But in 1999 Edmond, not in the best of health, was killed in an arson attack on his penthouse in Monte Carlo. Moise’s wife Chella Cohen became treasurer of the World Jewish Congress.
In 2006 he sold his half-share in the main business group to Joseph for some $2.5 billion after reputed disagreement over the future direction of the business, but they continued to work together with their cellulose pulp business. Moise’s British investments included a major development in the City of London in 2012, to the tune of nearly £500 million, and an $810 million office building in London .
Last year Moise’s name was linked with Chinese billionaire Zhang Zin in the acquisition of a 40 per cent stake in the General Motors building in Midtown Manhattan. The community centre he was building for Syrian Jews on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is due to be completed this year and will bear his name. He is survived by Chella, their three sons and two daughters.
Moise Safra: dollar billionaire who always looked the customer in the eye: “eyes tell more than balance sheets”