Henry Nicholas, Superhero

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

"Very few people know what the world is going to look like four years from now," he acknowledged. "But Broadcom has a major role in determining what the world is going to be like. That makes me the exception.

"We've already helped change the world. The first wireless chip Broadcom built cost $20 million to design, but the copies sell for $12. Hell, it's gotten to the point that you can get cable TV even if you're on welfare."

Nicholas was grinning when he made the welfare crack. He knew it was kind of an audacious thing to say, coming from a guy with $2 billion. But that's the way Nicholas often makes his points. He's a man of quick studies, blunt truisms, knee-jerk reactions and constant revisions.

"I am a media-relations nightmare," he announced proudly. "I never prep, and I generally say what I think—and sometimes I say things before I think. I don't know how many times people in the company have heard me say something to a reporter and later told me, "Jesus Christ, that's going to be in the paper!'"

Even when he's comported himself well, staying far away from such off-limits subjects as the details of his marriage and Broadcom's corporate secrets, Nicholas can't resist tormenting the people he has paid to look after him—such as when his PR guy, former Times Orange Countypresident Bob Magnuson, called the mansion via speakerphone to inquire how our interview was going. "Great, Bob!" Nicholas said hyper-enthusiastically. "I spent most of the afternoon making forward-looking statements and telling about Broadcom's next-quarter results." Magnuson responded with stunned silence until Nicholas ka-boomed a big laugh that let him know it was a joke.

Apparently, it's always been this way. Henry T. Nicholas III was a fidgety kid.

"To me, it has always seemed that things move too slow," he said. "Nowadays, a kid like me, they'd say he had ADD, but they didn't call it that then. I'm dyslexic, too, but they didn't know that right away, either. I spent six months in the retarded kids' class, and they were the happiest days of my life. I got candy bars for not acting out!"

Nicholas' agitation may have been abetted by the complicated energies that swirled in his home while he was growing up in middle-class Cincinnati. He may not know from welfare, but he didn't know stability, either. His father was both a gifted attorney and an alcoholic with a mercurial temper.

"Eventually, my mother screwed up my good deal at school," Nicholas laughed. "She wasn't going for that retarded-kid stuff. She got me back in with the regular kids."

Nick's mother, Marcella, finally got bottom line like that at home, too. She put her husband out. Soon afterward, she put Henry and his sister in the car and everything she could stuff into a U-Haul trailer. They settled in California, where Marcella used $5,000 in academic-grant money to study journalism at UCLA graduate school. When she married a screenwriter named Robert Leach, the family moved to Malibu, which in the 1960s was more of a colony of nouveau bohemians than a compound for the beaucoup-bucks set. The added sense of security helped young Henry focus better, and he dreamed of becoming a scientist.

"But I was still a C student up till 10th grade. I was terrible at arithmetic; I still can't add numbers in my head," Nicholas said. "It wasn't until we got to the more conceptual stuff—geometry, trigonometry, calculus—that I began to appreciate that mathematics is a beautiful thing." Many years later, Nicholas would write "Architectures, Optimization Techniques and VLSI Implementations for Direct Digital Frequency Synthesizers," his doctoral dissertation in electrical engineering.

But he never stopped ricocheting around. After graduating from Santa Monica High School in 1977, he went to the Air Force Academy, only to learn he was too tall to be a fighter pilot. He went to UCLA, where he earned his bachelor of science and his master's but insists he learned everything he really needed to know about business while rowing for the crew team, a lesson he recently summed up for a pasty-looking class of umbilicaled-to-their-laptops undergrads at UCI. "Go out for a sport!" he barked. "Athletics teaches you how to compete, but business school just teaches you how to form a committee. Academia in general keeps competition quiet—like your grades, for instance, which are confidential. The world of athletics is not like that. You row a race for your crew team, you immediately know who wins—and everybody gets to see who finishes last."

Nicholas got a job at the El Segundo offices of satellite maker TRW Inc. That's where he met the two most-important electrical engineers in his life—a woman named Stacey, who became his wife in 1987, and a man named Henry Samueli, who became his partner at Broadcom in 1991.

From all accounts, building the Broadcom empire was a torturous experience for everyone involved. Nicholas described his interview sessions with prospective employees as "crucibles of pain," and the corporate culture didn't get any easier when people started drawing paychecks. Work weeks of 60 to 70 hours were routine, and staff meetings could be called any time of the day or night—Nicholas convened one on Christmas Eve. It got worse when Broadcom went public in 1998, the same year Stacey Nicholas was pregnant with their third child. The birth was induced so that Nick could make an important business trip. When the couple finally went to Hawaii to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in 2000—three years late—Nick turned an intimate dinner into a business meeting by inviting an executive to join them.

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