NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Billionaire banker Edmond Safra was killed early Friday when fire engulfed his Monte Carlo home, following an attack by two hooded men, according to Monaco’s official press office.|
The death abruptly ended a half-century career in which the 67-year-old Safra, the scion of a Jewish-Lebanese banking dynasty dating back to the Ottoman empire, parlayed his financial skills into a global network with banks around the world.
The two attackers remained at large into the evening local time Friday, with authorities searching for them in the tiny principality as well as the neighboring region in France.
In process of selling his banks
At the time of his death, Safra, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was selling his controlling stakes in both Safra Republic and Republic New York Corp. (RNB) -- banks he founded and often referred to as his "children" -- to Britain's HSBC Holdings for $3 billion. Last month, Safra agreed to take a $450 million price cut in HSBC's offer, salvaging the deal after months of delay.
Republic New York is the fifth-largest bank in the New York in terms of deposits, with $12.4 billion, or a 4.3 percent share, in the metropolitan region.
On Thursday, the U.S. Federal Reserve said its board of governors plans to review the transaction at a closed-door meeting Monday. Republic shareholders approved the deal on Nov. 30, but Federal regulatory clearance is required before the deal can be completed.
Bank sales still on track for now
Officials with Republic New York said Friday that Safra's death would not affect the deals, saying he had prepared for this possibility due to his failing health.
"He was not 100 percent well, so everything has been codified," said Melissa Krantz. "That's what lawyers are for. Everything that was agreed-upon is still valid; Safra had his house in order.” She said the deal is expected to close by the end of the year.
But some others sounded a more cautious note.
"There's no precedent for this kind of thing because no other banking deals of this size had one dominant shareholder like this," said the head of bank credit research at an international financial institution, requesting anonymity.
Safra owned 31 million Republic New York shares, valued at an estimated $2.2 billion, which represented about a 30 percent stake in the bank, as well as a 21 percent holding in Safra Republic worth roughly $1 billion.
"Everyone was appalled to learn of the news and extends the deepest sympathy to Mrs. Safra," HSBC said in a statement.
John Bond, HSBC Holdings’ chairman, said his company would uphold both "the tradition and integrity of Edmond's life."
Wife and her granddaughter survive
Safra, one of the richest men in the world according to Forbes magazine, dies without any children of his own. The child who was in the apartment at the time of the attack was his wife’s granddaughter. Both his wife and the child were not injured after barricading themselves in a bathroom, but the child’s nanny died in the same room as Safra. Authorities said both suffocated on smoke from the fire.
The blaze gutted the top floor of his turn-of-the-century "Belle Epoque" apartment. The crime shocked the wealthy community, which is known for its low crime and widespread video surveillance to protect its rich and famous residents.
Officials said the fire erupted at the exterior of the building around 5:30 a.m. local time and quickly spread to the interior. The fire was brought under control by 8 a.m., police said.
Sources in London told CNN that Safra had received death threats in the past. Officials said a bodyguard who tried to fend off the assailants was suffering from light abdominal injuries. His life is not believed to be in danger.
A trader from the age of 16
Safra was a prominent figure in international finance beginning at age 16, when his family sent him to set up a private trading company.
From there, he built on a tradition begun by his ancestors, who served as gold traders and financiers between the Ottoman hubs of Aleppo, Constantinople and Alexandria.
The Safra family relocated to Beirut when the Ottoman empire collapsed after World War I. In 1953, after anti-Jewish riots in Beirut followed the birth of Israel, the family packed its bags again, heading to Brazil -- where Safra remained until 1962, the year he sold his Brazilian interests to his Brazilian brothers, Joseph and Moise, to start his own private bank. He subsequently moved to Geneva to start a private bank.
Safra's vast multinational business network encompassed Republic National Bank of New York -- a unit of Republic New York Corp., established in 1966 -- the Luxembourg-based Safra Republic Holdings and the New York-based First International Bank.
Unlike his private bank operations catering to the rich, Republic New York built its business at the retail level. With 74 branches, it is fourth in its network of branches in the metropolitan New York region, third in the city itself. It was one of the first banks to give home appliances to clients bringing in new deposits of $10,000 or more, and it is one of the few major banks in the city not to charge non-customers for using its automatic teller machines.
But Safra's ascent to the financial heights was anything but smooth.
After selling his private European bank, Trade Development Bank, to financial-services giant American Express in 1983, a bitter dispute ensued. Safra successfully defended himself against allegations that a new bank he set up in Geneva was serving as a conduit for laundered drug money. American Express was forced to apologize to Safra in 1989 for starting a smear campaign against him and it paid $8 million to charities of his choosing.
Safra's later decision to accept a $450 million price cut from HSBC for Republic, made last month, came after a major client of Republic was charged with fraud.
He also took big losses after Russia defaulted on its overseas debt during last year's financial meltdown, forcing Republic to overhaul its operations and lay off workers.
Safra was also known for his philanthropic work with community centers, universities and Yeshivas throughout the world, as well as for his advocacy on behalf of the environment.
Republic New York’s shares opened Friday at 70-7/8, down 9/16 from Thursday’s close. It was at 70-5/8, down 13/16 in mid-afternoon trading.
Shares of HSBC closed at 845 pence, up 24, in trading in London Friday.
--from staff and wire reports