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Fabian with his wife and son
Fabian Saenz describes the Chinese business of Costa Farms, the company he works for, straightforwardly. "We buy live plants and other items from China and sell them to America," he says. His office in Guangzhou is Costa Farms' only operation in the Far East. It employs 25 people here, including Fabian and his wife.

Chinese employees at Costa Farms purchase plants from China, Indonesia, and Thailand, as well as a specific seed from Japan. They also buy other materials such as plastic pots, trays, and packaging and marketing materials, in addition to bamboo sticks and metal materials for greenhouses. Asked why Costa exports plants from Asia to the United States, which is quite rich in agriculture, Fabian responds, "It is  definitely because Chinese goods are low cost. The Chinese market is huge, and we plan to enlarge our business. We already have rented one extra floor for our office space."

Beginning as a tomato producer in Cuba, Costa Farms has been in the horticulture industry since 1961. The company moved its operations to south Florida in the United States because of the repercussions on private ownership of businesses after the Cuban revolution. Costa Farms initially grew tomatoes and then began selling ornamental citrus trees. Today the company employs over 3,000 people in the United States, selling a large variety of plants – palms, orchids, cacti, lucky bamboo, bonsai, Christmas trees and a whole assortment of other houseplants. Costa sells pretty much any plant someone might want for their garden or inside the house. "All of our plants are potted, many have beautiful flowers or amazing foliage," Fabian relates.

Costa's director for Far East operations, Fabian was born in Costa Rica and spent his childhood there. His father is American so he finished university study and worked in the United States. After working for Costa Farms for five years, Fabian realized the potential market sparked by the world's recent orientation toward Asia. He decided to explore the Chinese market in Guangzhou.

He originally worked out of a Starbucks while setting up his office, and developed the business over seven years. He chose Guangzhou as the first station of Far East operations and praises the city unstintingly. "Life in Guangzhou is convenient and has less pressure and offers easy access to places like Hong Kong and Macau," he explains, "and its beautiful scenery makes it a great place for a foreign family to live."

Courtesy of his job, Fabian visits rural sections of Guangdong and travels around Guangzhou to develop new business ideas. "I don't need to see what is going on in Europe, the U.S. and Australia," he laughs. "China is still the world's factory. The constant exposure gives us an edge to develop new products from our ideas."

Orchid farm

Peach blossoms

Although he doesn't speak much Chinese, he still can interact and have fun experiences in small towns. He recalls the first visit he paid to the Fangcun Flower Market seven years ago, when none of the vendors knew what it was. He saw plants in the fields, asked to have an espresso and then had a Foshan-style lunch there. After about two hours of an amazing lunch, the proprietor showed up with an espresso cup! They had to go into the city, to the only small coffee shop at the time, in front of the Old Canton Fair Complex next to the Marriot Hotel, to get the espresso for him. It took about an hour and a half to bring it back.

Plum blossoms in Luogang

"This showed me how detailed and pleasing the locals are," he recalls. "Reflecting back, nowadays it's so easy to get an espresso cup anywhere in Guangzhou! And I still go buy plants and feel the same level of kindness and attention."

Fabian and his wife had a baby last year. The family frequents parks and museums, activities during the day that nowadays are more important in his life. "I particularly enjoy living more in Guangzhou since 2010, especially since the city got a facelift for the Asian Games," Fabian says. "There are so many nice parks, and the roads are beautifully landscaped. Even though Guangzhou is near industrial areas, there is a lot of green and color in the city. Sometimes there are not so happy days, when you miss your family or find some cultural differences bothersome. But I actually feel fortunate to live in these times and experience what China is experiencing."

(By Jessie Huang)
Editor:Lynus Tan
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