Special Reports

Captain steers ships to port

Capt. Jimmy Chen likes to keep a low profile.

Google him and you’ll find just a few obscure mentions: a chat room reference to his nautical museum; a snapshot of him, grinning, at a Tacoma World Trade Center gala; a note from the Dragon Boat Association, thanking him for boats and moorage.

The Trade Center’s directory of businesses casts more light on him, but only a glimmer. The listing for Chenco Marine, his Puyallup-based company, says: “Steel trading. General import and export. Buy & sell ships.”

Chen, 54, does in fact buy and sell ships. But that’s just the beginning.

He is on a first-name basis with CEOs and policymakers around the world, and he has U.S. senators and foreign consuls general on speed dial.

Working behind the scenes, Chen is an unofficial business ambassador between Washington state and China. His friendship is highly sought after by entrepreneurs in both countries who are looking to make a deals.

Chen is an introducer, a deal-maker and when problems arise, he’s a fixer.

“What we did in China would never have happened without what Jimmy did for us,” said Erik Johanson, the president of the Seattle-based float plane company, Edo Floats.

With Chen orchestrating and refereeing, Edo set up a deal last year in which Chinese aerospace workers build Edo float planes in a top-secret military factory – at about half the price they can be made in the United States.

“He knows a lot of people, he’s good at introducing people and getting people to work together,” Johanson said.

Chen was born and raised in Taiwan and made a fortune rescuing old freighters and hauling them to China to be scrapped for steel. He piloted the towboats himself, hence the title, captain.

He immigrated from Taiwan in 1980. Gradually, as the Chinese economy grew, he expanded into a Chinese ship-breaking yard, marinas and manufacturing plants.

From the outside, Chen’s headquarters on Puyallup’s Main Street looks as if it might belong to a down-on-his-luck tax accountant or a hometown lawyer.

But looks are deceiving. The no-frills exterior masks a sophisticated international enterprise. Chenco Marine has branches in Shanghai, London and Moscow.

In the space of a single hour on a recent afternoon in Chen’s office, he rang up an American Indian tribal chairman, a Communist Party leader in Beijing, a former CIA operative and a ship broker in Moscow.

“People like him,” Johanson said. “Jimmy is not an elitist kind of guy. He’s just as happy having a bowl of soup with the workers in a factory as he is going out to a fancy dinner.”

“He has an aura about him, and people can feel that. It’s an aura of … I don’t know, influence, perhaps. They know he’s not the best choice of people to fool around with.”

Chen seems embarrassed by such remarks. He is reluctant to talk about himself.

“I might have some language and culture barrier,” he protests. “I am very worried about offending people by talking too much and creating unnecessary problems.”

As far as his efforts to improve relations with China, he says only, “Being of Chinese origin, I feel it is my duty to build the bridge between two countries.”

Chen does not get paid for his efforts, he says.

“I never try to build the bridge and do business in the same time. If mixed together, people will look at me with different ideas. I think to give is a blessing better than to receive. I am always delighted to serve people.”