Imagine plunking down $4.5 billion to start a new company in a highly competitive industry characterized by slim profits or operating losses and even bankruptcies!

That's exactly what Evergreen Group Chairman Y.F. Chang has done in creating the EVA Airways Corp. of Taiwan. It may be the gutsiest corporate launch to be found anywhere in the world. And this is a very long- term proposition. Frank Hsu, president of EVA Air, says he has no idea when the company might turn a profit.Mr. Chang, 64, has an incredible track record as a businessman. He acquired his estimated $1.9 billion in personal wealth (Source: Fortune Magazine, Sept. 9, 1991) starting in 1968 when he launched what was to become Evergreen Marine Corp. by buying a secondhand 15,000-ton freighter from a Japanese carrier with borrowed money.

Today, the Evergreen Group owns 65 containerships and consists of 20 separate corporations employing nearly 10,000 people. Mr. Chang, who is said to own 70 percent of these holdings, told me in a Feb. 25 interview in Taiwan that he has no plans to slow the growth of his huge empire. Indeed, he seems to be speeding up!

"I have to keep expanding, I cannot stop," he recently told a group of Evergreen executives. Part of it, he said, was his own feeling of "social responsibility."

"There are many, many things we can do," he responded when I asked what he planned for the next 23 years. "If it is in a related business, there is no end to what we can develop."

Of course, EVA Air is by far the biggest step ever.

Before my recent visit to Taiwan, I real- ly didn't appreciate the extent to which Mr. Chang has vertically integrated his company, perhaps because Evergreen has avoided any big intermodal investments in the United States.

In Taiwan, however, Evergreen has its own trucks and terminals. Not only does Evergreen build its own containers, it fabricates the steel to make them. Further, Mr. Chang is seeking to buy a Japanese shipbuilding company, Hayashikane Dockyard Co. Approval from the Japanese government is pending. And he has announced plans to build an $80 million container hub in Panama.

Mr. Chang has taken the same vertical approach with EVA Air, whose Taipei headquarters and adjacent training building were built by Evergreen Construction Co. The company's elaborate computer needs are filled by the newly created Evergreen Computer Information Corp.

EVA Air also has its own flight simulators for pilot training and a newly built private hangar to maintain the company's planes. So far, 26 aircraft have been ordered, but delivery has been taken on only three.

Even so, the fledgling line has 1,500 employees, many of them in training. Interestingly, a tour of the EVA Air headquarters revealed that most of the green-clad employees are in their 20s, fresh out of college. As for the senior executives, most are trusted performers from Evergreen Marine.

A number of the prospective pilots undergoing training in the United States were once Evergreen sea captains or first mates, the feeling being that if you are smart enough to run a ship, you can learn to fly a plane.

Mr. Chang, who began his own career at 18 as a seaman with a Japanese shipping line, has a penchant for hiring young people and training them the Evergreen way. Though Mr. Chang is Chinese, many of his approaches are more akin to Japanese. Indeed, Mr. Chang's success in borrowing money to build his fleet over the past two decades relates to his close relations with Japanese businessmen, especially at the Marubeni Group.

He is so at home speaking Japanese that he told me that if he ever got around to writing his autobiography, he would do so in Japanese.

Upon turning 60, Mr. Chang became a vegetarian and gave up alcohol. Some years before that, he quit smoking. Understandably, he has a nice healthy glow about him.

Since the launch of EVA Air in 1989 - the first flights did not begin until July 1, 1991 - Mr. Chang has spent the majority of his time on the airline, pushing for landing rights and immersing himself in the myriad details of a highly detailed business. His eldest son, K.H. Chang, president of Evergreen Marine, has assumed the day-to-day responsibility for containership operations. Two other sons and a son-in-law fill key executive slots within the group.

Mr. Chang, who spoke through a translator, said that if relations between Taiwan and China were normalized, EVA Air could be a huge beneficiary. But even without that, the growth of Taiwan and other Asian economies make it inevitable that more people will be traveling and shipping cargo by air, he said.

Mr. Hsu, an Evergreen Marine executive before becoming president of EVA Air, said the goal was to create the safest, most reliable airline in the world with the best service anywhere. An obvious model is the highly successful Singapore Airlines, which some regard as the globe's best-run airline.

Can EVA Air compete against the multitude of more established airlines in a heavily regulated industry? Only time will tell, of course, but one gets the feeling in talking with Mr. Chang, Mr. Hsu and others that the enormous commitment to service will make EVA Air an attractive choice for travelers. Most significantly, the economies of Southeast Asia are projected to be the fastest-growing in the world. And Evergreen is noted for its tight cost control.

Right now, the company's three Boeing 767s are flying to Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia. Twice a week, there is a flight from Taipei to Vienna, Austria, via Bangkok.

Late this year, EVA Air will begin flights to the United States. Eventually, Mr. Chang hopes to have 30 planes in operation, basically a mix of aircraft

from Boeing Co. and McDonnell Douglas Corp. (which will help Taiwan reduce its trade surplus with the United States).

Meanwhile, Mr. Chang is also stepping up his activity in the hotel business. He owns five now and is developing another on a 10-acre site in Los Angeles (near "Little Tokyo") at a cost of $300 million.

During my visit to Taipei, Evergreen announced that it had completed arrangements for a $1.1 billion loan from a group of Taiwan banks, the largest loan in the nation's history to a private firm. The way Mr. Chang is investing in the future, that seems a mere pittance!

If EVA Air succeeds as I suspect it will, you can look for Chairman Chang to rise significantly on that Fortune list of the world's richest people. Not bad for one who started with nothing but his wits and a high school education.