Safra, born in 1938, fled Lebanon for Brazil in 1962 to join other members of his family who had already repatriated to the South American nation. Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $23.2bn, making him 63rd richest person worldwide. He was known as the richest individual in Brazil and at one point, the wealthiest banker in the world. Safra remained deeply involved in the local Jewish community and maintained an interest in philanthropic activity throughout his life.
One of the most prominent Jewish businessmen in Brazil, Safra made Banko Safra one of the most stable and profitable in the country, as reported by the Calcalist. He spent much of his time and funds opening up synagogues and community centers around Brazil.
Safra, who spoke English, Arabic and four additional languages, emigrated to Brazil in 1952 from Beirut with his father Jacob and brothers Edmond and Moise, where they set up a business. Three years later he founded Bank Safra, later independently and separately from his brother the National Republic Bank of New York, and in 1999 sold it to HSBC.
He reportedly paid $ 2.5 billion for half of Moises' holdings in Safra Bank in 2006, ending years of conflict over the bank's management. At the same time, the group acquired a number of properties around the world. In 2014 it bought the Swiss Re Tower in London for over £700 million. The family also acquired private bank J Safra Sarasin and invested in Safra National Bank of NY as well as a 50% share of Chiquita, a banana growing firm, acquired in 2014.
While banking was his primary focus, Safra also tried to diversify his asserts by investing in the paper industry, real estate, the telecom industry and raising cattle. Safra, whose family fled Lebanon for Brazil over five decades ago, was considered the richest banker in the world, with an estimated fortune of $19.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine. His family started banking five generations ago, financing trade in the Ottoman Empire between the Syrian city of Aleppo, Alexandria in Egypt, and Constantinople in Turkey.
Safra rarely provided interviews, telling people he was afraid to speak Portuguese in public for fear of being misunderstood. However, his attempt to maintain a low profile was hampered by relentless trade wars, including ones against members of his own family.
Brothers Joseph and Moise took control of the International Bank of Israel in 1990, and 13 years later sold it to a group headed by businessman Tzadik Bino.
The Safra family was also known for its concerns over personal security. Edmond, Joseph's older brother, and one of the most prominent bankers of the last century, died in 1999 after his Monte Carlo penthouse was set on fire, an event that shocked the banking world at the time. Edmond’s nurse, former Green Beret Ted Maher, was later convicted of starting the fire. Brazil’s O Estado daily reported that the financier’s untimely death led to a family battle over his assets.
The Safra family is known for providing an Albert Einstein’s original manuscript on the theory of relativity to the Israel Museum, donating Rodin sculptures to a São Paulo public museum, and numerous other charitable activities. The banker spent his final years in Switzerland suffering from Parkinson’s disease according to Brazilian media sources. Joseph Safra is survived by his wife Vicky, four children and 14 grandchildren.