Twenty years ago, Chen Feng used to push the refreshment trolley up and down the aisle of the lone Boeing 737 that comprised his start-up airline.

Today, based on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan, he controls a fleet of 483 planes — and has a jet of his own, a Gulfstream G550. Even so, Chen, a devout Buddhist, says he’s far from the stereotypical Chinese tycoon.

“I live a simple life,” he says.

As he sips a latte in the lounge of the chaletlike Sheraton Davos Hotel Waldhuus in Switzerland, his words jar with the setting: At January’s World Economic Forum, he’s surrounded by other corporate titans.

“I don’t drink, smoke, have banquets, go to karaoke or get massages,” he says. “I’m different from the other entrepreneurs in China.”

Chen Feng, chairman of HNA Group. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)

Where Chen, 60, is more like them is in his vaulting global ambition. In 1995, Chen flew to New York and persuaded George Soros to invest $25 million in his fledgling Hainan Airlines. Since then, backed by the Soros imprimatur, he has ridden the boom that transformed balmy, coconut-palm-fringed Hainan, 1,550 miles south of Beijing, from a backwater into a billionaires’ playground reminiscent of a Chinese Hawaii or Riviera.

From his Buddha-shaped, 31-story headquarters in Hainan’s capital, Haikou, Chen now chairs HNA Group, a closely held global transportation, logistics, retail, property, tourism and financial services empire that reported revenue of $17.5 billion and pretax profits of $837 million for 2012.

Among its $58 billion worth of assets: a New York office tower, a Spanish hotel group, a French airline and controlling stakes in 10 companies listed on mainland Chinese and Hong Kong exchanges.

“Chen’s smart, brave and a gambler,” says Albert Louie, founder of Hong Kong–based consulting firm A. Louie Associates, who advises foreign investors in China. “He’s also politically well connected, and unlike China’s Internet entrepreneurs, he isn’t in industries that the government might consider threatening to Communist Party control.”

Chen has spent more than $3 billion on foreign acquisitions in the past six years alone. His biggest bet was the $1.05 billion purchase in 2011 of GE SeaCo, the world’s fifth-biggest container-leasing company, from General Electric.

Such deals would make HNA Group, if publicly traded, one of the world’s top 250 companies by assets, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The founder, though, has much loftier goals.

“By 2020, we can become one of the top 100 companies, and by 2030, we want to be one of the top 50,” Chen says. “Assets are still cheap in the U.S. and Europe, and we will continue to acquire them. We need a batch of world-class companies to emerge from China to help the country’s growth, and HNA will be one of those. We want to be everywhere.”

That’s a familiar refrain among China’s entrepreneurs.

Since the global financial crisis ravaged the rest of the world in 2008, Chinese companies have made about $360 billion worth of foreign acquisitions, according to Bloomberg.

And increasingly, private businessmen such as Chen are replacing state-owned enterprises as leaders of China Inc.’s global push, says Thilo Hanemann, head of the cross-border practice at the research firm Rhodium Group.

“What’s going on is remarkable,” Hanemann says. “It’s similar to what we saw from Japan 20 years ago.”

Chen shouldn’t be short of cash for his next deal. At the end of 2012, HNA had $60 billion in credit lines from Chinese banks, according to its latest financial statements.

Chen says he plans to raise additional capital by selling shares in several HNA units that are unlisted. In coming months, Chen says, he will announce the initial public offering of Hong Kong Airlines, the second-biggest carrier in the former British colony.

He acquired the airline in 2006. The listing may raise about $1 billion later this year, according to a person with knowledge of the plan.

For now, the jewel in HNA’s crown remains Shanghai-listed Hainan Airlines, Chen’s biggest public company, with a market value of $3.6 billion. Together with five smaller affiliate airlines, it has a 15 percent share in the China market, according to the Capa Center for Aviation.

Only the “Big Three” state-owned carriers — Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines — have larger shares in the world’s second-largest aviation market after the United States

Hainan Airlines’ 23 international destinations include Chicago, Seattle and Toronto. Later this year, Chen will add a Boston service using Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

That shows his determination to gain market share on China-North America routes now dominated by Air China and United Continental, says Will Horton, a Capa analyst.

“Hainan is leaner and more internationally minded than the Big Three,” Horton says. “It can become a serious player to North America.”

Crash-free record

The airline’s key selling points include a crash-free record; doting, glamorously garbed flight attendants; and flat-bed business-class seats that made it the first Chinese airline to win five stars from the London-based rating agency Skytrax.

“Hainan is one of my favorite airlines,” says Allan Zeman, 65, a director of Las Vegas–based Wynn Resorts whose private company, Lan Kwai Fong, has investments across China. “The first-class service is excellent, and the airplanes are relatively new.”

Many of Chen’s shareholders have had a less enjoyable ride. Since 2009, the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index has been the eighth-worst performer out of 93 tracked by Bloomberg. And in 12 months, Hainan Airlines’ shares declined 17 percent, compared with the index’s 4 percent tumble.

Two of Chen’s other seven companies listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen have also fallen. In contrast, the unit into which Chen injected his GE SeaCo acquisition, Bohai Leasing, jumped 28 percent over the same period. In Hong Kong, shares in Hainan Meilan International Airport — owner of Haikou’s airport — rose 17 percent, mirroring the increase in the Hang Seng Index.

Chen’s most famous backer, Soros, is one investor showing a paper profit.

In 2005, Soros doubled his bet on Hainan Airlines to $50 million. Following a share swap, he owned 10 percent of an unlisted HNA unit, Grand China Air, which in turn owned 30 percent of Hainan Airlines.

That holding, equivalent to 3 percent of the carrier, was worth about $110 million. Soros, through a spokesman, Michael Vachon, declined to comment.

Even as he launches more public companies, Chen continues to control his empire through an unlisted holding company that isn’t required to disclose its complete balance sheet or the identities of its main shareholders.

One key item HNA does not release is its net profit. Chen says that last year he and six other directors, who between them owned almost all of the stock, donated 20 percent of HNA’s shares, worth $1.4 billion, to what he describes as a private-equity fund for charity.

The fund, named Ci Hang after a Chinese goddess, is HNA’s largest shareholder, Chen says. He says he ranks as the joint second-biggest shareholder, although he declines to reveal the size of his holding, making it impossible to determine how rich he is. Given Chen’s calculation of the value of the donation, HNA is worth $7 billion.

“Chen Feng is my idol, but I don’t understand his company’s structure — none of us can understand,” says Wang Dafu, 48, a Cohiba-cigar-chomping property developer worth $1.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Wang heads Visun Group and serves as Chen’s deputy chairman at the Hainan Federation of Industry and Commerce.

Although Chen is under no obligation to disclose more than he has about the workings of his private company, investors in Hong Kong Airlines’ IPO should expect HNA’s ownership to be more transparent, says Ronald Wan, who helps manage $200 million at Hong Kong-based Asian Capital.

“Hainan Airlines has a competitive edge, and people always talk about the Soros investment,” Wan says. “But when you invest in Chinese companies, you have to be clear about the shareholding.”

Chen talks freely about how he navigated some of the most turbulent years in China’s recent history. Raised in Beijing as the son of middle-ranking Communist Party officials, Chen was forced to leave school in his early teens after the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.

Unlike most young people who were ordered to labor in the fields, Chen was sent to work for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in the western province of Sichuan. When the turmoil ended in 1976, Chen parlayed that experience into a job in Beijing with the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

In 1984, he won a scholarship — one of 20 offered in China, he says — to study at an air-transportation school in Germany run by Deutsche Lufthansa.

In 1989, he took a job at the World Bank’s loan office in Haikou. The following year, Hainan’s administration hired him to launch its first airline. Given just $1.4 million in government seed money, Chen raised a further $41 million from local investors before successfully wooing Soros.

For the U.S. billionaire, $25 million was small change. For Chen, it meant much more.

“Soros’s reputation helped our image,” he says.

Perhaps even more helpful has been the surging development of Hainan, China’s smallest province, with a population of 9 million. In five years, the island’s economy has averaged 11.7 percent annual growth, compared with the national figure of 9.2 percent.

Today, around the resort of Sanya, centuries-old fishing villages have been replaced by marinas packed with mega-yachts. Luxury hotels line its sandy beaches, including what Marriott International says is its most profitable Ritz-Carlton-branded property.

Last year, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy played Mission Hills Haikou, a $5.4 billion golf resort that boasts 10 courses.

“Hainan was an absolute dump,” says Peter Churchouse, chairman of Hong Kong-based property investor Portwood Capital. “The word ‘phenomenal’ would not overstate the extent of the change.”

Rival carriers

Nobody has been better placed to exploit that change than Chen. Last year, the number of visitors to Hainan jumped 11 percent to 37 million. And of those arriving by air, 44 percent flew in on his planes, HNA says.

Chen even profited from those who traveled on rival carriers — he owns both of Hainan’s airports, as well as hotels and travel agencies in the province. HNA is also the biggest property developer in Haikou.

“It’s impossible to visit Hainan and not put a yuan in Chen’s pocket,” says Louie, the consultant.

In 2006, having expanded across mainland China, Chen turned to Hong Kong, acquiring, for an undisclosed price, Hong Kong Airlines and a second carrier, Hong Kong Express Airways, which he subsequently rebranded as a low-cost airline.

In 2011 and 2012 came a flurry of Western acquisitions, including GE SeaCo. HNA paid $259 million for a foreclosure-threatened Manhattan office tower, 1180 Sixth Ave., and $126 million for Cassa Hotel New York near Rockefeller Center.

He bought 24 percent of Spain’s biggest business hotel chain, NH Hoteles, for $397.6 million and 48 percent of France’s No. 2 airline, Aigle Azur Transports Aeriens, for 51.8 million euros.

Not all of Chen’s bets have been winners. In 2012, Hong Kong Airlines abandoned an all-business-class service between Hong Kong and London as corporate travel slowed.

Expansion into shipping coincided with a collapse in freight rates. Last year, an HNA-owned cruise liner carrying 2,300 passengers and crew was detained in South Korea after another Chinese company obtained a court order over $58 million it said it was owed for unpaid charter fees and ship broker commissions. HNA, while denying liability, issued a public apology to stranded passengers.

Asked about the company’s financial strength, Chen says HNA’s debt-to-equity ratio declined to 0.79-1 in 2012 from 0.81-1 in 2009. “People don’t understand that our industry always has high debt levels,” he says.

Chen’s ambitions don’t end with making HNA a global-top-50 company. He has another grand plan. Chen is rigorously private about his immediate family, except to say, “It’s not good for your children to have such wealth.”

Having donated 20 percent of HNA shares to charity, Chen says he and his partners aim to make arrangements to do the same with the rest of their stock after their deaths.

Given that Chen values the remainder of HNA’s shares at $5.6 billion, his last deal could well be his biggest.

The full version of this Bloomberg Markets article appears in the magazine’s May issue.