Puyallup entrepreneur Jimmy Chen is diversifying—again. Chen, who is best known for operating a worldwide ship salvage operation, has been an area leader in the development of businesses partnerships in mainland China.

A part owner in Shanghai’s largest steel salvage yard, Chen is an enthusiastic trader in nautical antiques and handles a variety of import products, including high-powered binoculars manufactured in China. Recently, he expanded his range of imports to hydraulic pumps ranging in size from a matchbox to a city block and upscale men’s and women’s fashions.

To outsiders the combination might seem incongruous, but the fastidiously dressed Chen says fashion is a natural addition. As for the hydraulics, well, that’s a matter of friendship.

“Besides the steel salvage yard in Shanghai,” he explains, “I own part interest in a shirt factory.”

Chen was visiting the shirt factory last year when he received a call from his college roommate, Walter Chiu, founder of Taiwan Hydraulics and Pneumatics Assn. in Taiwan. Chiu was seeking Chen’s advice on how to open the U.S. market to the range of pumps his company manufactures.

“He came over and we were having coffee at the factory,” Chen recalls, “when the foreman came to me and said we had high-skilled seamstresses who could do much finer work than was required by most of the contracts the company was receiving.”

What was needed, the foreman said, was more contracts such as one that recently had been signed with Valentino Rudy, a truly international clothing manufacturer. Founded in Italy in 1931, the firm relied for years on a Japanese firm operated by the family of Yasuhiro Matsuda to produce items such as neckties.

Chiu seemed to be dozing off during Chen’s conversation with the foreman but his eyes opened wide, Chen recalls, when mention was made of Valentino Rudy.

“I know the owner of that company,” Chiu observed, referring to Matsuda, whose company was among those who bought a controlling interest in Valentino Rudy following the death of its founder in 1997.

With Chiu serving as intermediary, Chen met with Matsuda, who not only increased the volume of shirts the Shanghai seamstresses sewed but also asked Chen for help in breaking into the American market.

When Matsuda and his wife came to Washington in February on their way to a Lions Club gathering at the U.N. in New York, they stopped off in Puyallup. It was there that Matsuda and Chen hammered out a partnership that calls for them to jointly market Valentino Rudy throughout North America, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada.

The fashion line already is popular in Europe and Asia—particularly Asia, where brand names carry great weight and none carries more weight than Valentino Rudy. There, the product line that includes cuff links, watches, eyeglasses, men’s apparel and women’s accessories are sold exclusively through catalogs.

Chen says he and Matsuda are developing a marketing plan that will introduce Valentino Rudy neck wear through an undisclosed department store chain in the United States. Puyallup will be the company’s U.S. headquarters, Matsuda said during a recent visit. The South Sound community will play a less active role in the distribution of Chiu’s hydraulic pumps.

“Those,” says Chen, “will be sold and shipped directly to customers.”

By George Pica, Business Examiner staff