An hour into our interview, at the poolside restaurant of the Hotel Cipriani in Venice, Italy, the billionaire investor glances at the lunchtime crowd drifting over from their sun loungers. He fidgets. His fingers pirouette along the table edge. Polishing off a cappuccino that's heaped with mounds of whipped cream, he suggests we move.
Berggruen selects a pair of wicker sofas on a patio outside the hotel bar. "It is better here, no? A little cooler," he says. Five minutes later, he decides we are too close to a boisterous group. So we move again, this time to a table tucked discreetly into the corner of a deserted veranda on the far side of the hotel.
Berggruen, 50, lives his whole life this way, always on the move, as he seeks out companies to buy from Berlin to Bangalore to Brisbane. For the past decade, the dual American and German citizen has had no fixed home address. He constantly roams the world on his Gulfstream IV jet, living out of five-star hotels. Most of the time, he carries only a small tote bag containing clothes and his BlackBerry.
"If you have things and if you are a perfectionist, which I am, you have to really tend to them, and it takes energy away from other things," says Berggruen, whose pink shirt, monogrammed with his initials in red on the pocket, is fraying at the cuffs and collar.
The son of a wealthy art dealer, Berggruen parlayed a trust fund worth about $250,000 into a fortune of at least $2.5bn, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Over three decades, the investor has gotten rich by tapping his worldwide network of business contacts to find mostly small beaten-down companies to buy, expand and sell.
Berggruen has also made money with four blank-check companies: shell companies that go public and then use cash or shares to acquire an operating business.
"Nicolas is a very insightful investor," says James Hauslein, a private-equity investor who's a former chairman of Sunglass Hut International Inc. and a former independent director of a Berggruen blank-check company. "He has a long and successful career of building up companies and reviving brands."
The eccentric investor has stumbled plenty too, particularly when taking detours from his buyout specialty. A foray into hedge funds produced lackluster results before he chucked the venture. And several of his investments in faddish businesses such as ethanol were a bust. "You make mistakes," Berggruen says. "You learn. I've learned a lot."
Now, Berggruen is moving even farther afield in a quest to save the West from sinking into chaos. He says the stock market swoons of 2011, the brinkmanship in Washington over the debt ceiling and the euro-zone debt debacle are symptoms of the same underlying problem. "What you really have is a deep, deep governance crisis in the West," he says.