AUBURN — George Wu started his first business venture at age 12, borrowing $250 from his parents to buy a peppermint patty vending machine for the lobby of their Minot Avenue restaurant, Hunan House.

He deftly turned one machine into dozens, at multiple restaurants, all the while working at Hunan House after school.

Twenty years later, he’s still juggling multiple ventures in a dizzying dawn-to-dusk working existence.

It’s fun, with its own rewards, he said. 

But the past several years, he’s also given himself an extra incentive for all that hard work: Taking weeks off at a time to see the world.

In January, it was Peru. In May, India. Later this month, Cuba.

Some of them turn into working vacations, of sorts. In Peru, booking through a company that specializes in locally involved tourism, Wu stayed in the spare room of a single mom with two children. The deal was, you stay, but you help. In this case, moving rocks to help her make a garden space.

“One of the things I love about these trips, it’s a different perspective on the world,” Wu said. “It makes you more grateful for what you have and the opportunities to help people.”

Wu, 32, grew up in Auburn. His parents had emigrated from Taiwan to Texas, where they opened their first Chinese restaurant. Family drew them up this way.

That first vending machine, which Wu had seen advertised in the back of Popular Science magazine, “gave me the gateway to my new business.”

During freshman year at the University of New Hampshire, he started another company buying returns, then overstock, from national retailers and flipping the items primarily on eBay.

“I did all of the shipping out of my dorm room, a true college business,” Wu said. “The whole closet (was) full of merchandise.”

That eventually became a company he still heads today, Virtual Commerce Inc., now also importing gadgets, gifts and products of his own design. Wu sells on sites including Walmart.com, Amazon.com and Overstock.com. The company has offices in Auburn, North Conway and Kissimmee, Florida.

He bought his first rental property in 2002, a condominium in North Conway, that started Virtual Commerce’s vacation rental, property management and commercial development side.

Locally, he owns buildings including the former Number One Chinese Restaurant on Turner Street and the Bog Hoot Bar & Grill in Mechanic Falls.

“Honestly, I just look for the best deal,” he said. “Location is a very important part of any decision and, of course, value.”

Two years ago, Wu and his older brother, Jimmy, partnered to open Lotus restaurant on Center Street. (Their parents sold Hunan House about 16 years ago.)

Lotus opened with 180 seats. Over the winter, the space was expanded to add seating for another 100. A hibachi station is coming soon.

Most days, he’s at Virtual Commerce from 8 a.m. to noon, at the restaurant from noon to 1 p.m., back in the office from 1 to 3 p.m., back at the restaurants for dinners and at the restaurant on weekends. 

“Really just catching up with our customers and our guests makes me so happy, which sounds really weird, but it’s amazing,” Wu said.

After a health scare three years ago, he decided to lose 100 pounds and hit the brakes, just a tad.

Enter the world.

He’s taken several trips a year through Planeterra, a travel company that promotes economic development and socially conscious vacations.

In Egypt, that meant working at a community education center and library that educates local youths in the hospitality industry and gets them ready for the tourism-driven workforce.

In India, it meant booking airport transfers with a company called Women on Wheels.

“They have taken females that have been abused or trafficked or anything like that and they teach them a new skill and how to run their own taxi business,” Wu said. “They incorporate some really great ideas.”

He comes back each time a little rested and wondering what he can do overseas to help. It’s in his tentative plans for the future, when he gives himself time to slow down.

“It just makes you a better person, building and experiencing all of this,” Wu said.

His general philosophy is to keep striving and exploring; that’s one of the reasons he tries to find new ways to work from his Standish home. There might be something down that road he’s never seen before.

“I don’t let little things bother me; I just keep moving,” Wu said, “because there are so many more things to work on, to do, to learn.”

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