As told to Larry Olmsted
Industry: Computers and Electronics
2006 Inc. 500 Ranking: 190
Three-Year Growth: 620%
As a teenager in China, Chris Chen was sent to a farm for three years of re-education--"in hindsight, the best education," he says. "The hardship was a great lesson." He later emigrated, and today he travels to China as an M.B.A.-wielding American businessman. Segue Electronics, which produces custom electronic components in China, primarily for American companies, did $11.2 million in sales last year. All of this, remarkably, was set in motion by a chance meeting between Chen and a couple of American Rotarians.
In 1978, I was at an art gallery in Shanghai and I ran into this American couple, which was very unusual at the time, to be able to talk to Westerners. I talked to them for about 10 minutes. His name was Franklin DeGroodt and he was the mayor of Palm Bay, Florida. His wife, Helene, was a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. He was a member of the Palm Bay Rotary Club and he gave me his Rotary card. A security guard stopped me and asked why I was talking to Westerners, and took me to his office. Mr. DeGroodt saw what was happening, but he could not do anything.
Later, we exchanged letters, and he invited me to visit them in the States, but I told him that was impossible. He wrote and said that he had arranged a Rotary scholarship and was there any chance I could come to study? I ended up living with the DeGroodts for a year and a half while I got my master's in computer science at Florida Institute of Technology.
I came to L.A. in 1983. I didn't know many people, and I contacted the local Rotary Clubs and offered to speak about Chinese culture and trade, and ended up giving about a dozen speeches. Through them I forged many relationships. I also earned my M.B.A. at night, then went to work at Xerox, and later in business planning for a $50 million Kodak subsidiary.
I would attribute much of my career advancement to luck and unique opportunities. I moved on after one of the Rotarians I got to know through speaking hired me to run a venture capital fund. Later, I managed a government-licensed small-business investment company for three years. When China began to open up, I co-founded a company exporting manufacturing equipment for new factories.
China got going as a manufacturer, and in 1997 I formed Segue. I switched to outsourcing electronics from China because China had turned the tables.
We help our customers with design and production of things like power supplies, cables, transformers--more for industrial applications than for consumer products. We make things like wire harnesses with various devices for GE. All of our goods are custom-made, so we are a value-adding supplier.
At the same time, we provide logistics, buying power, and engineering support, all here in the U.S. Our customers do not need to deal with China, or letters of credit or paperwork, or with the language.
Once I left China I did not think about going back. I wanted to be all-American at the time, and I became a U.S. citizen. But China has changed dramatically. I go back now and then.
Mr. DeGroodt was Palm Bay's mayor for three terms, and now there is a library and major boulevard named after him. He said, "Don't do anything for me; do something good for others when you are able." So after he passed away we set up a memorial scholarship for needy Palm Bay high school students. Last year I took Mrs. DeGroodt back to China for the first time since we met at the gallery 28 years ago. At 82 she greatly enjoyed it, and then gave a speech to the Palm Bay Rotary. I've been a Rotarian now for over 10 years.