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PACIFIC RIM TRADE : Profiles : For Asian Tycoons, Success Is a Matter of Seizing Initiative : Whether manufacturing toys or exporting rice, these business leaders have prospered by knowing when to make their moves. : Y.F. CHANG, 67, Taiwanese shipping magnate

June 07, 1994|Rone Tempest\f7 , Times Staff Writer

According to the official company biography, the spectacular career of billionaire shipping magnat Y.F. Chang is a classic Horatio Alger tale with an Asian twist.

The son of a poor carpenter and his wife living in Taiwan under Japanese occupation, Chang graduated from Taipei Commercial High School and went to work as an apprentice sailor on Japanese shipping lines.

After rising through the ranks to captain, Chang in 1968 bought a secondhand tramp freighter that launched his shipping business.

Today his Evergreen Group owns one of the largest container shipping fleets in the world, with 74 vessels at sea. Evergreen also owns EVA Airways, a rapidly expanding international carrier, as well as hotels and heavy industrial plants.

Forbes Magazine has listed Chang's personal wealth at more than $2 billion.

"More than half my success is due to my experience at sea," Chang once told an interviewer. "Only people who start low and push to the top can survive."

But Chang's "push" to the top also has been assisted by several factors not normally mentioned in the official biographies.

The first was his marriage to the daughter of the owner of the Japanese shipping line where he worked. The second, very possibly related to the first, was his longtime business relationship with the Japanese Marubeni trading house.

Although Chang speaks the Taiwanese Chinese dialect, he is more comfortable speaking Japanese learned in school during the occupation.

This fluency helped him with Japanese business connections. Marubeni lent him the money to buy his first ship and more money to repair it after it was damaged in a collision.

Although it has never been confirmed, many people believe that Marubeni was the source of the more than $1 billion in loans Chang obtained between 1982 and 1984 to buy 24 ships needed to launch his global transport service.

The only black spot on the Evergreen record came in August, 1993, when company officials admitted making $172,000 in illegal campaign contributions to more than 20 California politicians, including Gov. Pete Wilson and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. To atone for the illegal contributions, Evergreen's U.S. subsidiary agreed to pay $895,000 in penalties, the largest fine of its type in U.S. history.

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