Putting His Money Where His Values Are --- Restless Billionaire Now Prefers to Invest 'In the Real World'
Nicolas Berggruen became a billionaire through classic value investing. Now, he is switching to a new strategy. Call it "values investing."
With rice farms in Cambodia, windmill farms in Turkey, an ethanol plant in Oregon and glittering new skyscrapers in poor inner cities around the world, Mr. Berggruen is pumping millions of dollars into projects that he hopes will both expand his fortune and alleviate social ills.
"Historically, I've made my money in financials," says Mr. Berggruen, 46 years old, whose net worth is estimated at more than $3 billion. "Now, I'm investing in the real world. I'm investing in the ground, in things that will last for generations and improve people's lives."
Mr. Berggruen's big bet on social investing isn't unique. Richard Branson, thefounders, Ted Turner and a vast new generation of eco-investors have all espoused world-friendly investing.
The quest is more personal for Mr. Berggruen (pronounced: BerGREWin). After amassing billions and buying all the usual trophies of success -- a Florida mansion on a private island, a luxury condo in New York -- Mr. Berggruen is paring down his material life. He has sold his properties and now lives in hotels. He is about to sell his only car. Because he doesn't have children and is unmarried, he is planning to leave his fortune to a personal foundation and an art museum.
"Living in a grand environment to show myself and others that I have wealth has zero appeal," he says in an interview, standing in a hotel room in New York's Upper East Side. "Whatever I own is temporary, since we're only here for a short period of time. It's what we do and produce, it's our actions, that will last forever. That's real value."
The obsession with legacy is increasingly common among today's super-rich -- even for relatively young billionaires like Mr. Berggruen. "For some of these people, they're growing concerned about how they're going to be remembered," says Russ Alan Prince, president of Prince & Associates, a wealth-research firm that conducted a recent study on legacy. "For others, they've always wanted to do something and they realize that if they don't do it now, they're never going to do it."
For Mr. Berggruen, the transformation follows a life full of eccentricities and unconventional success. The son of Heinz Berggruen, the famed Germany-born art collector who befriended Pablo Picasso, Nicolas Berggruen grew up in France and Switzerland hoping to become a writer. He studied Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists and rebelled against his privileged upbringing.
When he was 17 years old, he moved to New York City to attend New York University. He also started investing with a few thousand dollars of his own money. After graduating -- in two years -- he started investing in stocks, bonds and early forms of private equity.
Soon, he was buying entire businesses. Berggruen Holdings, his wholly owned investing vehicle, has net assets of more than $3 billion, according to Mr. Berggruen, business associates and corporate documents.
One of his biggest victories was FGX, the eyewear company formerly known as Foster Grant, which he acquired when it was declining in value. After making acquisitions, expanding the product lines and shoring up management, he took it public for a big profit.
He also created Media Capital, one of Portugal's largest media companies, after acquiring newspapers, television, radio, magazine and Internet assets. He has since sold the company.
"He's a disciplined buyer," says Martin Franklin, the chief executive of, the consumer-products giant, and a partner with Mr. Berggruen in several businesses. "Nicolas is one of those guys who turns lemons into lemonade."
Mr. Berggruen was also behind two of the world's largest special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. These so-called blank-check companies raise money through initial public offerings to make acquisitions. A U.S. SPAC he helped launch in December, calledraised more than $1 billion. A European SPAC he launched in February, called Liberty International Acquisition Co. raised $878 million. Mr. Berggruen is still shopping for companies to buy with both funds.
He has experienced his share of setbacks. One of his earlier SPACs,, merged with the British hedge-fund in 2007 to take the fund public. The stock surged initially, but plunged more than 30% in recent weeks after one of GLG's top traders abruptly resigned. Mr. Berggruen, who owns about 6% of the company, says he is disappointed in the loss but confident the stock will bounce back. In 4 p.m. New York Stock Exchange composite trading Friday GLG's stock was down 11 cents to $7.78.
Despite his wealth, the boyish-looking Mr. Berggruen remains a mystery. He has avoided the press and has never appeared on the Forbes list of wealthiest individuals, although he would likely qualify. When a Dutch magazine tried to publish a profile of him several years ago, Mr. Berggruen bought up all the copies and destroyed them.
His personal habits are legendary among friends and colleagues. He works 12-to-14-hour days. He rarely visits his offices around the world, preferring to work in hotel rooms and restaurants. When he is in New York, he does most of his work on his BlackBerry while speed-walking around Central Park.
For Mr. Berggruen, chocolate is a primary food group. He eats two meals a day, one of which usually consists of chocolate cake. When David Bonderman, founder of TPG, the private-equity firm, went trekking with Mr. Berggruen in the Himalayas, Mr. Bonderman rode a horse. Mr. Berggruen bounded up the mountain fueled on chocolate bars.
He is restless to an extreme, logging 250 hours on his Gulfstream IV last year (his biggest indulgence) and visiting more than 80 cities around the world.
Mr. Berggruen's shift to socially responsible investing was gradual. When oil prices started soaring a few years ago, he looked into alternative energy sources. He acquired the Cascade Grain ethanol plan in Port Westward, Ore., the largest ethanol plant on the West Coast.
In researching ethanol, Mr. Berggruen realized that the world's food production -- which was increasingly being used for fuel -- wasn't keeping pace with demand. He formed a team of top agricultural experts and started researching ways of boosting farming productivity.
He bought up hundreds of thousands of acres in Australia, where he plans to grow grains. He is in talks to buy land in various other areas of the world, and he is negotiating with several governments to lease land for farming cassava, corn, rice, olives and other crops.
After his food ventures, Mr. Berggruen realized how many similar social problems could be solved -- or at least targeted -- through investing.
"Government wasn't solving these problems," he said. "So the market has to step in."
One area was real estate. An avowed urbanist, Mr. Berggruen started investing in projects aimed at reviving decaying inner cities. He is working with partners to buy up large parcels in downtown Newark, N.J., to build a mixed-use development with offices, homes and retail. He is launching similar developments in India, Turkey and Israel, working with top architects such as Richard Meier, David Chipperfield and Kazuyo Sejima.
Mr. Berggruen is also making plans for his foundation, which will target a wide array of social problems. One of the few things he is still acquiring for his personal life is art, which he says will withstand the test of time and eventually be given back to the public through a museum.
"The art I buy now goes to storage," he says. "I don't have a home to hang it in."
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
I don't normally copy and paste news articles verbatim, but here's an article worthy of note about another reclusive, wealthy philanthropic person. Like Chuck Feeney, he's putting his money into good causes. Certainly a person worthy of emulation, I hope I'll be able to be in his shoes someday, and have his kind of wealth to spend my life working for the benefit of society too. From WSJ: