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The High-Flying Life of ‘Homeless Billionaire’ Nicolas Berggruen

It’s time to discover Nicolas Berggruen and familiarize yourself with his extraordinary life – if you haven’t done so already. The businessman began with a $250k trust fund and is now valued at over $2.3 billion. He has dedicated his life to revitalizing businesses in Europe and has also invested time and money into making things better here state-side. 

Berggruen, 50, has always been on the road in search of businesses to purchase, from Berlin to Bangalore to Brisbane. The dual citizen, who is American and German, hasn’t had a regular address for ten years. On his Gulfstream IV, he travels the globe while residing in five-star hotels. He often travels with little more than his BlackBerry and some clothes in a little tote bag.

Family history 

Jason Dean/ Rex | Nicolas Berggruen is a U.S.-based billionaire investor and philanthropist

Berggruen’s parents were fascinating, and interesting parents make interesting children. His father was a journalist who left Germany in 1936 after learning from his editor that he could no longer use his byline because of his Jewish surname. Heinz Berggruen, who had settled in San Francisco, began writing art criticism for the San Francisco Chronicle before joining the American military and being stationed in Europe. 

He established an art gallery in Paris after the war, grew close to Pablo Picasso, and eventually gave an incredible collection of contemporary art to establish the Berggruen Museum in Berlin. Nicolas’ mother was German actress Bettina Moissi, who played the lead role in “Long is the Road,” the first German film to address the Holocaust. She married Heinz in 1960, and Nicolas was born in 1961.

How It All Started 

JENNIFER LIVINGSTON/ WSJ | As an adolescent, Nicolas Berggruen was drawn to politics and philosophy

With his small amount of cash, Berggruen started experimenting with stocks and bonds. His tastes as an investor were varied. In the 1980s, when the area’s real estate was largely “bombed-out,” he recalled using his capital gains to purchase property in the West Village and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant district.

He co-founded a collection of hedge funds in 1988, which he later sold to Safra Bank. He bought international hotel networks and the eyewear manufacturer FGX, which he swiftly restructured and quickly floated on the stock market for a large profit. A year ago, he paid a symbolic 1 euro to purchase the bankrupt German retailer Karstadt, promising to invest 70 million euros in the company and preserve 25,000 jobs.

JENNIFER LIVINGSTON/ WSJ | Nicolas Berggruen funds the Think Long Committee for California

But as Berggruen’s fortune increased, he lost faith in what cash might buy. He started downsizing his lifestyle ten years ago, selling a New York apartment and a Florida island house. His favorite hotels currently have his fairly restricted clothing kept in locations worldwide.

He lent his art collection to museums, which freed him up to go from one city to the next in his private jet, the one possession he considers too “practical” to part with. What Berggruen does with his money is even more interesting–he is mostly interested in spreading his ideas.

He hired two UCLA professors to teach him philosophy and four political science professors to discuss Eastern and Western governments.  This private education eventually led to the birth of his political policy think tank, the Berggruen Institute on Governance. Their mission is to eliminate political gridlock caused by politicians simply trying to get reelected.

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