Most Influential People in Finance — Joseph Safra

The finance sector is a fast-paced, ever-changing industry dominated by influencers and thought leaders. While many ‘make it’ on a small-time scale, attracting a solid following and maneuvering their way through the industry with expert precision, others leave a much more lasting impression. This Medium series from content marketing agency Contentworks will look at the most influential people in finance including what they’ve achieved and why they’re at the top of their game.

This article focuses on Joseph Safra.

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The World’s Richest Banker

At 80 years old, Joseph Safra is the world’s richest banker with a net worth of $25.2 billion (as of July 2019). He is currently number 39 on the Forbes World Billionaire List.

As the descendant of a Syrian banking family, Safra grew up in Beirut Lebanon before moving to Brazil in 1955. He has since become an international businessman owning the Brazilian banking and investment empire, Safra Group which includes Banco Safra, Brazil’s 8th largest bank headquartered in Sao Paulo. This is managed by his two sons David and Alberto while his oldest son Jacob takes control of J. Safra Sarasin based in Sweden, Safra National Bank of New York and real estate holdings across the U.S.

As a highly savvy entrepreneur, Safra also owns 50% of banana grower Chiquita Brands International with the other half being owned by Brazilian orange juice billionaire Jose Cutrale.

Early Banking Connections

With banking connections dating back to Ottoman times, Joseph Safra was born into a money-savvy family whose history stemmed from the caravan trade which operated between Beirut, Aleppo, Alexandria and Beirut during the Ottoman Empire. After moving to Brazil, Safra saw his older brother Edmond and father earning money by financing assets in San Paulo. But soon, the siblings carved their own paths with Edmond founding the Republic National Bank of New York which he sold to HSBC in 1999 and Joseph setting up Banco Safra in 1955. Safra’s steady hand and eye for business has to-date kept the family in the upper echelons of the banking hierarchy.

Of course, being brought up in one country and becoming a business legend in another is not child’s play which explains why this Chairman’s success story is one of fascination.

Extensive Property Portfolio

Part of Safra’s extensive wealth can be attributed to the Safra Group’s impressive property portfolio which includes the Gherkin in London. The Brazilian banker bought the iconic building back in 2014 in a deal thought to be worth more than £700 million. The Safra Group said in a statement “While only 10 years old, this building is already a London icon that is distinguished from others in the market, with excellent value growth potential. We intend to make the building even better and more desirable through active ownership that will lead to a range of enhancements that will benefit tenants.”

Ambitious Proposals…

Part of Safra’s success can be put down to ambitious proposals, many of which he continues to pursue today. Looking to extend a 200-property profile, the Safra Group reportedly submitted a proposal for a new London landmark dubbed the Tulip Tower which was intended to sit next to the Gherkin and be the tallest skyscraper in London coming in at a whopping 1,000 feet. Joseph Safra’s son Jacob has said of the proposed building: “The Tulip’s elegance and soft strength complements the iconic Gherkin. We are confident in London’s role as a global city and are proud to offer its schoolchildren a state-of-the-art classroom in the sky to appreciate London’s history and dynamism.”

This has so far been rejected by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who released his decision through a Greater London Authority filing, overruling the committee that had originally given the project the green light.

The filing states: “The proposed development of a tall visitor attraction, by virtue of its height, form, design and appearance would not constitute the very highest quality of design required for a tall building,” adding the development “would compromise the ability to appreciate” the Tower of London which is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Dedicated Philanthropist

As well as a successful businessman, Safra is also a dedicated philanthropist who has donated vast sums of money to the Edmond J Safra Foundation, established by Joseph’s brother. This support organisations and individuals in need across the globe. The charity focuses on four main areas: Education; Science and Medicine; Religion; and Humanitarian Assistance, Culture and Social Welfare. With regards to education, the foundation has supported the Centre for Ethics at Harvard University and the science campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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