Henry Nicholas, Superhero

He made billions with Broadcom and then quit at 44. Now Nicks life gets really exciting

After a few hours, my eyes glazed over, but Henry T. Nicholas III had only begun to talk. The glaze dried into a crust that baked my eyeballs into jelly-filled cookies, which eventually fell out of my head, dropped to the floor, and disintegrated into two little piles of crumbs and goo. We left the mess for the maid.

Henry T. Nicholas III—who told me when we met just after lunch that I could call him "Nick," although I never really got the chance—still had a few more things to say, something about a mathematical equation called the Golden Ratio, then something about fatherhood, then about the invention of the electric guitar, the Air Force Academy, running 10Ks at 3 in the morning, revolutionizing the educational system, cursing at Christmas parties, the UC Irvine crew team, Korn, about whether time-with-a-capital-T is concave or convex. Night had fallen by the time he got it all out—seven hours and 49 minutes later, not counting our wait for the delivery of my new seeing-eye dog.

But just about everything Henry T. Nicholas III said was fascinating—even the second time through as I transcribed the tapes. You'll have to take my word for it, though: after writing this story, I stomped those cassettes into plastic glitter and electromagnetic tinsel. I shredded the paper transcripts. I moved to Mexico, where I am living in a nondescript apartment in a second-tier seaside resort. That was the verbal deal I struck with Henry T. Nicho—you know, it is easier to just call him Nick—when he got a little hinky about me turning on the tape recorder.

"When you have $2 billion, you're a walking target for frivolous lawsuits," Nick explained. "Any record of anything you say—on tape or on paper—has the potential of ending up as evidence in a courtroom."

Oh, did I forget to mention the part about Henry T. Nicholas III having $2 billion? Yep. Fascinating guy.

"For some reason, people like to read about me," he acknowledged with a little laugh that was almost apologetic, as if I'd taken some bait by coming to the hilltop in Nellie Gail Ranch, where he lives in a 15,000-square-foot brick castle that's being prepped for an addition. He's gotta know the most obvious reason: it's why people like to read about lottery winners—assuming people read those stories—or that anybody has read any of the many newspaper and magazine articles already printed about Nicholas and his mansion with its touch-screen, wall-mounted computers; its hidden wooden panel in the study that opens to a secret underground tunnel to a gym, a sports bar, a wine cellar, a recording studio and a basketball court; its upstairs movie theater; its rock grotto with waterfalls that's in the back yard. Really, all we know for sure is that reporters like to write about Henry T. Nicholas III. They want to be billionaires, too.

But after listening to Nicholas talk all day, being a billionaire doesn't sound quiteso great. You gotta take math. You gotta know a lot about computers. In fact, you gotta know a lot about just about everything, or want to, anyway, and you gotta want to baaaaaaaad, which means you gotta have this jumping-bean brain that works faster than some computer thingy that hasn't even been invented yet, so you gotta invent it or you gotta find people who can, and you gotta carp at them relentlessly until they do. You've gotta have co-founded a company called Broadcom in 1991 and have dedicated it to changing the world by connecting every electrical appliance—from your computer and TV to your coffee-bean grinder—via a network sped by communication chips, meanwhile kicking the crap out of the competition, and you've gotta have driven everybody simultaneously toward success and insanity with your from-here-to-eternity work habits and your want-it-yesterday demands. And then you've gotta actually have done it—started changing the world and kicking the crap out of those companies—but you also had to have pursued those goals so single-mindedly that your neglected wife filed for divorce, prompting you to retire in your prime, with your mind and your mouth still going like a motorboat engine pulled from the water full-throttle. You gotta be a 44-year-old brainiac, tall and handsome and athletic and driven, with family in place, fortune made and reputation secure. And then you gotta figure out what the hell to do with the second half of your life.

"That's not a problem for me," Nick objected, rather adamantly. "I have a wife and three young children. Ask any good husband and father if that isn't a project big and important enough to fill a life. I'm not bored. My problem when I wake up every morning is figuring out how to squeeze in all the things I want to do that day. If you want to call that a problem, it's the same one I've always had."

One of the things that's always on Henry T. Nicholas III's to-do list is "revolutionize the entire paradigm of access to education, using the profit-based business model of broadband Internet to develop virtual campuses that enable millions of people to attend the best schools in the world." He writes that on the line where the rest of us put "clean lint screen on dryer." To Nicholas, they are sort of the same thing.

Next Page »