Nicolas Berggruen has never shied away from asking life’s difficult questions. Now he hopes to answer some of them.
The erudite billionaire, who built his fortune making shrewd investments in a variety of high cash flow commodities on the international stage, has chosen Los Angeles as the permanent home for his eponymously named think tank. The man who for years famously jetted from city to city, residing in five-star hotels around the globe in lieu of an actual domicile, has finally settled down.
Speaking in a crisp accent with an elegant cadence, the 56-year-old Parisian transplant describes the invigorating aura of his adopted city, which he appreciates for its diversity, richness of the arts, and abundance of entrepreneurs. “LA is an open place, physically, but also in terms of attitude,” he observes. “You don’t have the baggage of history—good [or] bad.” The city, he believes, is leading the way to the future.
To that point, Berggruen donated $500M to fund the Berggruen Institute, his mecca for studied problem solving in the areas of political governance, economic policy, and emerging societal concerns.
He purchased a nearly 450-acre stretch of land in the Santa Monica Mountains and envisions that by 2022, his comprehensive compound, anchored by the 137,000-square-foot scholars campus, will provide an idyllic cloister for the world’s elite thinkers to cogitate on matters of import and propose new ways of solving enduring and emerging problems.
Referring to the project as a “secular monastery,” Berggruen intends for the development to have minimal geological impact on the pristine surroundings. He reportedly interviewed 30 different candidates before selecting Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, perhaps best known for their conversion of London’s Bankside Power Station to Tate Modern, to design the project.
In addition to the main building, the campus will have gardens, conference rooms, dining facilities, bungalows, and a private residence for the chairman. More than 90 percent of the remaining acreage, situated near The Getty Center between Topanga State Park and the San Diego Freeway, will remain undeveloped. The 180-degree view from the floor-to-ceiling windows of Berggruen’s West Hollywood high-rise condo (he owns several in the building) affords a bird’s-eye view of the future site, with the Pacific to the right, Downtown to the left, and SoHo House below. It’s a lot to take in, but Berggruen is used to seeing the big picture.
Origins of Visionary Clarity
The son of Heinz Berggruen, a Jewish art dealer who fled Germany in the mid-1930s, and German actress Bettina Moissi, young Nicolas had an abundance of solitary time while growing up in Paris in the early 1970s.
“I was curious about things beyond my years,” he admits. “There was no television, no phones, nothing of distraction.” So he would think and reflect. “Ideas were all you had,” he says without a hint of pathos. “In my case, it was a blessing. It gave me the interest of speculating.”
A voracious reader, Berggruen devoured French history, studying the rise of great leaders such as Napoleon and the Sun King, Louis XIV. He noted with wonderment how they understood the complexities involved in running a country and grasped the inner workings of government.
Berggruen attended Le Rosey, an exclusive boarding school in the Swiss Alps. He characterizes his school years as rebellious, but not in the typical coming-of-age adolescent manner. “I was challenging the teachers with intellectual stuff,” he recalls. “I would argue with them. It was a mess.”
Restless and ready to tackle life, Berggruen graduated high school at 16, passing the state exam a year early. He moved to London, became fluent in English, and landed an internship with Lord Max Rayne, a prominent property developer and philanthropist. Fascinated with philosophy and understanding human nature, Berggruen was “not interested in the capitalist world.”
At 18, he moved to New York to attend New York University, earning a business degree in just two years. He went to work for financier Sid Bass in Philadelphia, but preferred New York and returned there in the mid-1980s. He formed Berggruen Holdings, investing in stocks, then co-op conversions and, later, a group of hedge funds that he sold. Following the lead of Warren Buffett, Berggruen found a lucrative niche in leveraged buyouts of companies with high cash flow.
While still in his twenties, Berggruen launched Alpha Investment Management, partnering with Julio Santo Domingo Jr., heir to the Santo Domingo Group. The two men pooled their money and created the hedge fund to manage third-party capital. The experience further bolstered Berggruen’s understanding of international markets; Alpha was eventually sold to Safra Bank in 2004.
Berggruen Holdings continues to invest in more than 50 verticals all over the world, from rental cars in India to real estate in Israel to clean energy in Turkey to hotels in Portland, Oregon.
Becoming an Agent of Change
About a decade ago, circumstances caused Berggruen to reassess his priorities and view life from a renewed perspective. In 2007, his father, who fueled Berggruen’s competitive determination throughout their complicated relationship, passed away.
“What I learned from my father [was] passion and focus,” he says. “He valued quality over quantity.” That held true not only in business but in personal relationships as well. The elder Berggruen, a discerning art collector and dealer, also enjoyed close friendships with Picasso, Man Ray, Dali, and other contemporaries, as well as descendants of masters from previous eras.
While Berggruen admits he’s “too curious to be as focused as my father,” the instilled values persist, as does the penchant for building strong relationships with a broad spectrum of influential, brilliant, and successful people.
A year after his father’s death, the recession hit; Berggruen saw one-third of his net worth disappear. More troubling, he didn’t seem to care all that much, at least about the hollow trappings of wealth.
What he really cared about were the enduring, generational ideas around human nature, governance, and philosophy. Ultimately, he made the decision to take an active and prominent role in making the world a better place. Questions that first flooded his head in his younger days came rushing back, and his thirst for answers was renewed. Only now, he needn’t ponder these questions by himself.
ALL the ideas that have changed the world were not popular at the time they were introduced. Revolutionary thinkers were persecuted during their lives.
Spending an increasing amount of time in LA, Berggruen would convene regularly with like-minded academics at the Peninsula Hotel (where he was living at the time), and the topic would settle on some aspect of improving the state of the world—whether on the scale of city, state, country, continent, or planet.
These brainstorming sessions germinated into the Think Long Committee for California, an ad hoc think tank that counted Eli Broad, Eric Schmidt, and Condoleezza Rice among its members. The meetings produced a bill to reform California’s century-old referendum system. Berggruen was standing next to Governor Jerry Brown when he ceremoniously signed the bill into law the following year.
Founded in 2010, the Berggruen Institute includes the Berggruen Governance Center and the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center, the 21st Century Council, The Berggruen Prize, and The WorldPost.
Taking a Measured Approach
History is a wise teacher; Berggruen knows this. And enduring, consistent results are not achieved overnight. Just like new verticals in commerce, revolutionary ideas are seldom embraced overnight. Over time, though, the best find their place and evolve based on the intrinsic value added to society.
“All the ideas that have changed the world were not popular at the time they were introduced. Revolutionary thinkers were persecuted during their lives,” he points out, offering Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, and Machiavelli as primary examples from an array of cultures.
“My role at the Institute is actually quite elementary,” he says straightforwardly. “Helping people think and generating valuable ideas. To make sure the Institute comes up with something of value. Not this minute or tomorrow. Sometimes you have to be patient. We invest without the promise of immediate returns.”
Berggruen’s coterie of thinkers, leaders, and entrepreneurs extends deep in expertise and wide in cultural diversity. Several members of the Institute’s 21st Century Council have served as heads of state, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. Other members of the 21st Century Council include Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, Jeff Skoll, and Patrick Soon-Shiong.
The L.A. Committee and the Council for the Future of Europe are two other arms of the Institute’s Governance Group. The L.A. Committee, focused on governmental and civic efficiencies of Greater Los Angeles, has enlisted the participation of local business and civic leaders such as Frank Gehry, Janet Clayton, Cindy Miscikowski, Dominic Ng, Evan Spiegel, and Zev Yaroslavsky to propose forward-thinking solutions to the city’s most pressing and enduring issues.
In December 2016, the renowned philosopher Charles Taylor was named the first recipient of The Berggruen Prize, an annual award of $1M given by the Philosophy and Culture Center to an individual “whose ideas have helped us find direction, wisdom, and improved self-understanding in a world being rapidly transformed by profound social, technological, political, cultural, and economic change,” according to the Institute’s website.
Political Climate Change
Having traveled extensively throughout his life, there are few countries in the world Berggruen has yet to visit; he estimates the number to be around 20. Whether he’s meeting with high-level dignitaries or interacting with common people in the streets, Berggruen finds the lessons to be absorbed from different cultures particularly enlightening.
On the world stage, Berggruen admires Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron for their efforts to change the governance of their respective countries for the better. Certain topics, he believes, are ideal for bringing together world leaders for the purpose of informing and gleaning knowledge from different perspectives in the name of solving a shared problem or concern.
“Climate is an area where you can put people and cultures together who would not normally be together under shared goals,” he says. As always, history will provide proper perspective on the implications of current policy decisions that favor a path other than partnership. The only constant is change.
“Our democratic systems have worked well but, you know, seem to be fraying a little bit,” he acknowledges. “Democracy today has to work for hundreds of millions of people in this country, where they all have a voice.” Social media is the straw that stirs the increasingly volatile cocktail of media and politics.
“People have been ‘dis-intimidated’ by social media,” he adds, manufacturing an appropriate non-word to describe the ubiquity of everything from antagonistic trolling to the creation and dissemination (and even celebration) of fake news. “How do you restore a system that has worked [and do it] in a modern way?” he posits. “That means new thinking, new ideas. That’s never going to be comfortable.”
Living His Legacy
The Berggruen Institute has been called a “mini-Davos” for its convergence of forward thinkers culled from around the world. Berggruen considers himself lucky that the currency of ideas allows him to engage with so many brilliant people. He’s not entirely sure how to define his success, as so much of his work is focused on long-term, big-picture concepts.
“I don’t care much about legacy,” he says, redirecting focus back to the present. “I care that we can get some things done while I have the energy and I’m here.”
After turning 50, Berggruen’s paternal instincts began to kick in. While he’d had girlfriends over the years, the idea of marriage never appealed to him. So, in a distinctively modern melding of nature and science, he fathered two children, Olympia and Alexander, through a single egg donor and two separate surrogates. The siblings, born three weeks apart, are now nearly two years old.
For a man with an insatiable appetite for rumination, it’s no surprise to learn Berggruen’s final act each night before retiring to bed. “I think,” he says simply, repeating the phrase like a mantra.
Does he ponder the direction the world is heading on a granular, day-to-day scale? Does he wonder about the world his children will inherit after he’s gone? Is he having a fantastical brainstorm of how to further his concerted, cross-cultural effort to bring the world to a greater state of simpatico?
Only he, and tomorrow, know for sure. In any event, Nicolas Berggruen has an unobstructed view of the future, and he’s in prime position to drive the city—and humankind—into the rarefied air of possibilities.
Opening photo via Ben Steinberger