What's George Chen's title? GrowthSpotter caught him off guard with that question.
"I'm a person who has always done different things throughout life – titles have never mattered to me," he laughs. "Just use my first name."
The list of options is long: Entrepreneur. Importer. Hotelier. Developer. Winery owner. You could also add dive instructor, black belt – perhaps even "American Dream."
Chen's parents fled Communist China with a suitcase and about $300 in their pockets, though each came from prominent families in Southern China.
"I was fortunate," Chen says. "My older siblings were born just after my parents arrived in Taiwan and were literally living in a tiny shack."
His Taiwanese childhood was happy. His mother, an educator, founded two schools, institutions that put high school graduates to work in the automotive and electronics fields.
"She was instrumental in helping shape the burgeoning economic progress of Taiwan," he says. "And she started with nothing."
At 13, his family emigrated to the U.S. Chen was the only Asian at his Raleigh, NC, high school, but race was never an issue. A high achiever, his grades won accolades and membership into the National Honor Society, where mock election competitions with other schools were a high point.
"My parents were Republicans, but they were big fans of Kennedy's ideals: ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." It was a philosophy that would stick.
After graduating from UC-San Diego – his designs on med school thwarted by rigid policies and his own unwavering criteria – Chen was momentarily stumped for a life plan. He spent seven months backpacking across South America, came back fluent in Spanish, and launched a successful computer import-export company – renting space in one of his father's Los Angeles shopping centers.
Then came his eastern migration.
Chen's parents, longtime fans of Florida, were nearing retirement, but that JFK-borne ideology had deep roots. His mother's schools in Taiwan, where they planned to move, were profitable; their businesses in Los Angeles lucrative.
"They called us all together and told us they wanted to leave the money they had made - $15 million - here in the country that had given them refuge and been good to them."
They purchased 500+ acres of raw land just outside Disney. Chen volunteered to develop it.
"I had my computer company going, but I was bored – because I get bored when I start making money and I don't have to do that much work," he laughs.
It was something of a re-immersion into his undergrad studies; Chen hand-planted flora and mapped gopher tortoise burrows alongside biologists with zeal.
Fast forward 30 years and Chen – still working 12-14-hour days – isn't bored yet.
He opened Splendid China, a $100 million joint venture with China Travel Services of Hong Kong. He built a hotel, shopping centers and five subdivisions. He got married, did triathlons, became a certified PADI instructor, a cave diver, a father.
In his mid-50s, his mother urged him to look for "legacy projects," so he turned to sustainable agriculture, the fount from which Formosa Gardens sprang. This March, the property will host the Florida Blueberry Festival. With 18,000 attendees expected, Chen is thrilled to be part of a nonprofit effort that will fund various charities in Osceola County and the Four Corners area.
A member of the Tourist Development Council since 2009, he delights in seeing exciting new projects that continue to change the Central Florida landscape, literally and figuratively.
"The 66 acres that were once Splendid China are now the central part of Margaritaville," he says. "It's been really good to see another game-changer on the west side of Osceola County bringing business to Kissimmee and the Four Corners area with the massive investment they are making."
Chen's future plans include additional hotels and high-end subdivisions – projects he estimates will equate to some $200 million for the local economy in the next decade.
"I am crazy busy!" he laughs. It seems to go without saying.
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