Man eyes Asia for Eastern Panhandle business

January 02, 1997


Staff Writer, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - John Unger has had considerable achievements abroad, including a stint as a Rhodes Scholar and crossing through violence-stricken Asia with Mother Teresa to lead relief efforts. Now, Unger is turning his attention to his hometown and hopes to use his international connections to help the Eastern Panhandle.

This past summer, Bruce Van Wyk of Van Wyk Enterprises was impressed enough with Unger's talents and the connections he has established abroad to make him vice president of the local development firm.

Van Wyk's firm has been at the heart of Martinsburg's vast growth in recent years, and with Unger aboard, the company is now looking to connect the Eastern Panhandle with the rapidly growing Asian market.


Unger's work to help bring the two worlds together started last summer when he helped coordinate an overseas trade mission for Van Wyk, Gov. Gaston Caperton and other officials.

Before the trip, Unger went to Hong Kong, where he had done missionary work in the mid-1980s, and set-up meetings between Van Wyk and top-level business and government officials to allow the two sides explore the possibility of business ventures between Hong Kong and West Virginia.

Van Wyk said when he entered the sessions, he found himself in the company of several billionaires and the head of one of the biggest banks in Asia.

"He was very well connected in Hong Kong and he was able to set up an exceptional set of interviews," said Van Wyk, whose projects over the years have included the Spring Mills residential and business community in northern Berkeley County and the large-scale development between the King and Queen Street exits along Interstate 81 where the Martinsburg Mall and numerous other restaurants, business buildings and motels have been built.

Although no deals have been signed, Unger said Asian officials have been receptive to the idea of expanding their markets to the growing Tri-State area, where they would also have the advantage of being located near major metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

In return, West Virginia could export products like lumber, furniture and environmental technologies to China, Unger said. Unger said if it's done right, trade agreements between West Virginia and Hong Kong could be a boon to the Tri-State area. China's rate of growth is currently about 10 percent a year, much higher than that of the United States, Unger said.

"This area is very critical. If we make a good presence in Hong Kong, we can spread throughout the world," said Unger.

At age 27, Unger's resume already reads like a college thesis.

After growing up in Martinsburg, he went to West Virginia University where he graduated with a degree in biology and liberal arts. He was later selected as a Rhodes Scholar to study at Hong Kong University and Oxford University in Oxford, England.

Even when he was studying he found himself immersed in weighty issues. While studying at WVU, Unger said he became interested in the plight of people living in a homeless shelter in Morgantown. Unger said he persuaded officials at WVU with expertise in employment strategies to help people at the shelter find work, which in turn gave them a sense of community.

The efforts were later formalized into a program known as the Employment and Training Search Program, Unger said.

Unger's travels abroad began in 1988 when he went to Hong Kong as a missionary for the Evangelical Lutheran Church. He later joined Mother Teresa to lead relief efforts in Asia following a series of monsoons and riots in 1990.

Unger has received numerous awards over the years, including being named to USA Today's All-USA College Academic First Team in 1992. The national award goes to top college students who not only show top academic talent, but who make a difference in their communities.

"He's a very confident individual," Berkeley County Commissioner Pat Murphy said of Unger. "It's a good reflection on our school system," said Murphy, who joined with the other commissioners a week ago to publicly honor Unger's accomplishments.

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