Nowadays, just about all bankers covet the private banking business. The ultimate private banker was Edmond Safra, who died last month owning about 30% of Republic New York Corp. and Safra Republic Holdings of Geneva.

His forte was safeguarding the funds of the world's wealthiest people. He never offered high rates, instead promising a haven for their funds. He sought only 5% of his rich clients' portfolios -- the portion they wanted kept safe and secret.

Before he died at age 67, he had agreed to sell his banks to London-based HSBC Holdings PLC for $9.9 billion. But before the deal closed, a scandal erupted at Republic New York in which one of its clients allegedly bilked Japanese investors out of about $1 billion. A bank employee was reported to have vouched for the client. The sale had to be renegotiated, and Mr. Safra agreed to take up to $600 million less to keep the other shareholders whole. In that last major act Mr. Safra's reputation as a man of honor was reaffirmed.

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