Twelve years ago, Nicolas Berggruen sold his apartment, which was filled with French antiques, on the 31st floor of the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. He said he no longer wanted to be weighed down by physical possessions. He did the same with his Art Deco house on a private island near Miami. From that point on he would be homeless.
Now he keeps what little he owns in storage and travels light, carrying just his iPhone, a few pairs of jeans, a fancy suit or two, and some white monogrammed shirts he wears until they are threadbare. At 51, the diminutive Berggruen is weathered, but still youthful, with unkempt brown hair and stubble. There’s something else he hung on to: his Gulfstream IV. It takes him to cities where he stays in five-star hotels. In London, he checks into Claridge’s. In New York, he’s at the Carlyle Hotel. In Los Angeles, he takes a suite at the Peninsula Beverly Hills.
His social calendar tends to be full no matter where he is. A dual citizen of Germany and the U.S. who speaks three languages, Berggruen makes a point of having lunch and dinner each day with someone intriguing. It could be an author, a famous artist, or a world leader. He prefers to meet them at restaurants near his hotel. He makes reservations for three even when he only plans to dine with one. That way he doesn’t get stuck at a small table. He leaves room for dessert. He adores chocolate.
In the evening, Berggruen is frequently photographed at parties with attractive women such as British actress Gabriella Wright. “You could easily look at his life and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s always got a pretty girl on his arm. He’s at every party around the world. Is he just a giant playboy?’ ” says his friend Vicky Ward, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. Maybe. Every year, Berggruen throws a party at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood during Oscar week and invites all his friends. They rub shoulders with Hollywood types such as Paris Hilton, Woody Harrelson, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Berggruen can afford to live like this because he’s chairman of Berggruen Holdings, a New York-based private equity firm that buys troubled companies and fixes them up. Currently it owns more than 30, including an Australian farming operation, a British life insurer, a Portuguese book publisher, a German department store chain, and real estate development projects in Turkey, Israel, India, and Newark, N.J. According to its website, the privately held holding company’s annual revenue is $5 billion. It throws off $250 million in earnings each year. Berggruen’s personal worth is estimated by Bloomberg Markets to be $2.5 billion.
But Berggruen isn’t satisfied with mere wealth and glamour. He also wants to be taken seriously as an intellectual. As the financial crisis unfolded, he became convinced some political systems were failing in America and Europe. He thought he could help rescue them by using his disposable income to advance wonky reforms. By his own admission, he didn’t know much about such matters, but that didn’t stop him.
In 2009 he started the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, a think tank whose stated mission is to improve global governance, and promised to spend more than $100 million to further its goals. In California he’s pushing to overhaul the fiscally troubled state’s tax code, education system, and problematic initiative and referendum system. He would like to see greater political integration in crisis-plagued Europe, preferably under a single leader. He thinks it would be great if the Group of 20 nations become more of a permanent global policymaker.
That’s a large agenda for a balance sheet repairman who only recently began examining such matters. Nevertheless, he got prominent Californians and former world leaders to lend their names to his efforts.
Berggruen will need more than money, charm, and the right names for his think tanks to save the world. His transformation from pleasure seeker to policy guy is a work in progress. Some of his ideas are not exactly made for prime time. For instance, he argues there’s much that Western democracies can learn from autocracies such as Singapore. As he puts it admiringly, the political leaders there really know how to get things done.
“Can I do something really rude?” Berggruen asks in an accent that’s more French than anything else. “I cannot resist. Can I steal a French fry?”