A Banker’s Jour­ney: How Edmond J. Safra Built a Glob­al Finan­cial Empire

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By – December 23, 2022

Banker Edmond J. Safra (19321999) was an obser­vant Sephardic Jew­ish man who believed that bankers should lead mod­est, incon­spic­u­ous lives. How do you expect peo­ple to trust you if they see you gam­bling?” he recalled his father telling him. Tak­ing this advice, he devel­oped a bank­ing style that was intense­ly con­ser­v­a­tive. He avoid­ed the stock mar­ket and most retail con­sumer lend­ing, pre­fer­ring to lend to large cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments, or to make plays in low-risk arbi­trage. For Safra, the mis­sion of banks was to offer sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty to the com­mu­ni­ties they served. Mod­ern read­ers, accus­tomed to bank fail­ures and bailouts, and to financiers flaunt­ing their mon­ey in all the wrong places, might find Safra’s sto­ry so straight-laced that it’s per­verse­ly interesting.

Born near Beirut, Edmond Safra grew up in a bank­ing fam­i­ly in Aleppo’s tight-knit Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. He was fif­teen when his father sent him to Milan to start a gold-trad­ing oper­a­tion, buy­ing and sell­ing var­i­ous coun­tries’ coins or melt­ing less-desir­able coins into ingots. At the same time, pogroms in Alep­po and Beirut were send­ing Jews flee­ing. Edmond facil­i­tat­ed his family’s move to Brazil, though he would go on to estab­lish his bank­ing busi­ness in Gene­va. Before long, he estab­lished his flag­ship Repub­lic Bank in New York City — noto­ri­ous for giv­ing away TVs and oth­er appli­ances to new clients. The bulk of Republic’s busi­ness, how­ev­er, was cor­po­rate and gov­ern­ment lend­ing. As his bank­ing empire expand­ed to Lon­don and oth­er major finan­cial cen­ters, Edmond still met clients and made invest­ment deci­sions him­self. His one attempt to go main­stream, merg­ing with Amer­i­can Express, was a mis­take that took him years to unwind. Safra avoid­ed overt con­nec­tions with Israel while Jews remained in Beirut, but by the 1990s, he sup­port­ed Israel open­ly. In his ear­ly six­ties, feel­ing the onset of Parkinson’s symp­toms, Edmond start­ed clos­ing down his bank­ing empire by nego­ti­at­ing a sale to HSBC. He would not leave his clients in the lurch.

The whole sto­ry­line here is the build­ing of the bank­ing empire; Edmond’s inti­mate life is left opaque. We see he was a fam­i­ly-ori­ent­ed man who loved Sephardic cul­ture and gave to char­i­ty gen­er­ous­ly. In the ear­ly sev­en­ties, he mar­ried socialite Lily Mon­teverde and warm­ly embraced her chil­dren. Gross does not dis­cuss the women with whom Edmond was close before Lily, Lily’s own back­ground, or the Safra family’s reac­tions to the mar­riage. Per­haps Gross felt uncom­fort­able delv­ing into the per­son­al,” but it’s an impor­tant aspect of most biographies.

Ulti­mate­ly, the intend­ed take­away from the Edmond Safra sto­ry remains some­what unclear. Is it that a hard-work­ing, pious man can over­come all obsta­cles and make a for­tune? Or that bankers and oth­er financiers can act in the best inter­ests of a com­mu­ni­ty, that they can be pow­er­ful forces for good in the world? Regard­less, Gross nar­rates the finan­cial sto­ry with a deft hand.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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