Steve Kramer

The Syrian-born Jew who built a banking empire

I received a pre-publication copy for review of A Banker’s Journey: How Edmond J. Safra Built a Global Financial Empire by Daniel Gross from the publisher’s representative. It’s a fascinating look at both Sephardic Jews and the banking industry. 

“Rather than a biography of a single man this is the biography of a most extraordinary family and their impact on banking and the history of the twentieth century.” (A quote from an enthusiastic reader)

This biography of Edmond Safra would have been remiss without including numerous mentions of Edmond’s father Jacob and Edmond’s siblings, all members of the Syrian Jewish community from Aleppo. “A city that spans Jewish history from the days of King David over 3,000 years ago. Aristocratic and noble, Aleppo was the crown of Jewish splendor in the Sephardic world. The Jewish presence in Syria dates back to Biblical times and is intertwined with the history and politics of Jerusalem. According to the book of Samuel and Psalm 60, Aram Soba, the Biblical name for Aleppo, was part of the extended area of Israel. Throughout the millennia, great Talmudic sages record Aleppo’s unbroken record of communal peace and spiritual productivity.” Ms. Sarina Roffé

Jacob Safra (1891-1963) was born in Aleppo into a family of bankers. At that time, banking particularly involved currency trading in precious medals and currencies. The Safras began as money changers, exchanging various European, African and Asian currencies for gold and silver bullion. In 1914 Jacob struck out on his own in Beirut, founding the Jacob E. Safra Bank. 

Edmond Milan, Jacob’s second oldest son, was born in 1932. Jacob was an old school banker, who knew his customers and could finalize transactions with a handshake. Edmond idealized his father and adopted his style of personal banking.  Though smart, Edmond wasn’t the academic type and left school early, joining his father’s bank at age 16. His talent for rapid mental arithmetic enabled Edmond to finalize currency transactions while his competitors were using slower, more cumbersome methods. He was clearly a young man with a bright future.

Jacob recognized Edmond’s potential and decided to send him to Milan in 1949 to explore the possibilities of opening a bank in Italy, since things were fraught for Jews in the Levant. This was just one year after Israel’s independence, when the familiar Arab world was becoming markedly more hostile to its Jewish populations. Edmond, only 17, was joined in his travels by a companion and advisor only two years his senior, and Edmond’s talent for making strong personal connections with the right people served him well. His companion became a very long term Safra associate.

Edmond decided that South America was a better location for the family’s first international bank and the family moved to São Paulo, Brazil in 1952, leaving the Arab world behind, but not the Jewish world of Sephardic connections. Within three years the first Safra bank opened in São Paulo.

After his initial foray in Brazil, where the family remained, Edmond returned to Europe and in 1956 opened the Trade Development Bank (TDB) in Geneva; it was a personal bank, with select clientele. Ten years later, he opened the Republic Bank in New York (and a later offshoot in Geneva), facing huge competition from the established banking community. Utilizing a unique marketing strategy (the offer of TVs and other premiums for opening new accounts), Edmund expanded beyond his usual customer base of Sephardic Jews into the broader mass market. It was a huge success, with customers who correctly believed that their bank had a serious fiduciary interest in protecting its clients. Safra’s bank’s clients were from Monaco, Luxembourg, Switzerland and beyond.

In 1983, Edmund was enticed to sell his TDB holdings to American Express for nearly a half billion dollars, while he held onto his Republic Bank and other ventures. This was a big mistake which turned into a huge lawsuit and dirty tricks offensive by American Express – when he announced he was selling his AMEX stock. The American Express propaganda denigrating Edmond was picked up by many news outlets worldwide It was all totally made up. Edmond’s integrity sustained a huge, unwarranted blow which affected him mentally and physically. After a lengthy and very expensive legal campaign, Edmond was cleared of all the spurious charges. He had sued not for money, but only for the sake of the legendary Safra reputation. 

In 1988 Edmond opened the Safra Republic (Luxembourg) Bank holding company, in direct competition to American Express. By this time, the long-time bachelor was happily married to a very wealthy, very accomplished, Ashkenazi Jewish woman. He became a stepfather to her children and a very happy grandfather. Unfortunately, Edmond developed a severe case of Parkinson’s disease which he had kept secret until the disease advanced beyond that possibility . 

In 1999 Edmond sold all of his holdings to lead a more restful life. But later that year Edmond was accidentally killed at home in a fire set by a disturbed employee, who thought that he would be rewarded upon rescuing Edmond from the fire. It was a tragic ending to a very successful and rewarding life.

Edmond’s older brother Elie was also a banker who retired early to become a full time philanthropist. His two younger brothers, Joseph and Moise, maintained the family banks in South America and were themselves very successful, emulating Edmond internationally. While Edmond never resided in Israel because he initially believed  it would damage his business in Arab countries, he donated hugely to Jewish charities and was also a personal benefactor to a large number of former Aleppo Jews who eventually fled their Arab countries of birth.

Note: The quote at the beginning of this article actually was written in praise of another excellent financial book, The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family by Ron Chernow. Of course, the quote equally applies to A Banker’s Journey, which I highly recommend to those interested in finance and the history of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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