Obituary: Edmond Safra

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THE BIZARRE circumstances surrounding the death of Edmond Safra, choked by smoke in a locked bathroom where he was hiding from supposed assailants, were in themselves enough to trigger worldwide media coverage of one of Monaco's wealthier residents. The image of a sick old man, his intellect and actions undermined by Parkinson's disease, falling victim to his own fears, can only excite pity.

Ironically, it was the elaborate precautions against outsiders that Safra had installed in his penthouse apartment which prevented his would-be rescuers from saving him. Firemen called to the burning building were unable to break down the reinforced door; and such was the Lebanese banker's paranoia that he refused to respond to pleas from his wife to unlock the door himself.

It was a tragic end to the life of one of the world's richest and most successful private bankers. During nearly half a century, Safra had built up substantial banking businesses in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, and amassed a personal fortune estimated at more than pounds 1.5bn, with homes in Geneva, London, New York and Sao Paulo, as well as Monte Carlo.

The secret of Safra's success was two-fold - trust and timing. He was born in Beirut in 1932 to a Sephardic Jewish family which had been banking in Syria and Iraq for more than a century, beginning by financing the caravan trade between Aleppo, Alexandria and Constantinople. The family had flourished under the benign attitude of the Ottoman empire to religious minorities, and by the start of the Second World War, Edmond's father had already begun to introduce his 16-year-old son to the family's personal customers in Beirut. "Look your customers in the eye," his father told him. "Eyes tell more than balance sheets."

Alarmed by the rise of Arab nationalism after the war, however, the family fled anti-Jewish sentiments in the Middle East for Sao Paulo in 1952, opening Banco Safra SA three years later. Many of their old clients discreetly opened accounts in the new bank as they too sought a safe haven for their families and fortunes half the world away from Arab hostility.

It did not take the new arrivals long to realise, however, that their fortunes were also at risk in the New World, especially in countries ruled by right-wing dictatorships. So in 1956, Edmond Safra left his two brothers in charge of Banco Safra to set up his own private bank in the one country in the world where money could be safely deposited with no questions asked - Switzerland. Based in Geneva, Safra's Trade Development Bank was an immediate success, with funds flowing in from rich Sephardi Jews in the Middle East and South America.

Ten years later Edmond Safra opened his second bank. The Republic National Bank of New York began with a flourish, offering depositors of $10,000 or more free television sets. The gimmick was a nasty shock to some of New York's established banking community, and a surprise move by a man who already had a reputation for guarding his own privacy. It worked, however, and "the TV bank", as it is still called by some, rapidly expanded.

Over the next 18 years, Safra became one of the world's most influential bankers, with an unrivalled number of wealthy individual clients. In 1984, however, he sold Trade Development Bank to American Express for $550m. It was, he said later, his biggest mistake. Safra found himself a fish out of Amex's corporate water and quickly resigned, selling his Amex shares at a loss of $135m.

In 1988, he opened another European bank, called Safra Republic, based in Luxembourg. Not surprisingly, many of his private clients moved their accounts to it. Amex accused Safra of luring them away and launched a smear campaign alleging dealings with drug smugglers, money launderers and illicit arms dealers. Safra sued and in 1989 Amex made him a public apology and an $8m contribution to charities of his choice.

Inevitably, though, it took a long time for all the mud to wash away. But in May this year Safra agreed to sell Republic New York Corporation and Safra Republic to HSBC for $10bn, with his personal share of the deal valued at $2.75bn. Announcing the deal, Sir John Bond, chairman of HSBC, lauded Safra for his prudence, conservatism and integrity. With less than 30 per cent of his banks' assets in loans and the rest invested in the most staid of securities, the praise seemed fully deserved. Only the revelation that Edmond Safra had agreed with HSBC to reduce the price of his holding in Republic by $450m, to cover the bank's surprising exposure to Russian bad debts, casts any shadow on his reputation. And even that could be interpreted as a rare and admirable example of an individual capitalist prepared to underwrite a corporate loss.

Edmond Safra was perhaps one of the last of the world's great private bankers. His fame and fortune was built on his close personal relationships with many of the world's richest indviduals. His loyalties were absolute, to his employees as well as his clients. But they were personal loyalties. In an increasingly regulated and legislated world, with even the most reticent of private banks forced to divulge ever more intimate details of their accounts, such a role can only be more and more circumscribed.

Perhaps Safra's decision to retire reflected an awareness of this; he had long been noted for the care he took to protect his privacy and his person. It is only sad that he fell a victim to his precautions.

Edmond Safra, banker: born Beirut 1932; married Lily Monteverdi; died Monaco 3 December 1999.