HNA Group Co., the once-acquisitive Chinese conglomerate that’s been selling billions of dollars in assets this year amid soaring borrowing costs, said that Co-Chairman Wang Jian died after an accident in Provence, France. He was 57.

Wang, who was on a business trip, had a fall from which he couldn’t recover, HNA said in a statement on its website. Wang died Tuesday morning after falling from a 15-meter high cliff while having his photograph taken in Bonnieux, according to a police officer reached by phone from Avignon. The death isn’t being viewed as suspicious, the officer said.

Wang’s sudden death comes at a time when the group, one of China’s most indebted companies, was showing signs of putting its biggest problems behind it. China’s top leaders agreed to help HNA, people familiar with the matter said last month, providing much-needed relief for a company that couldn’t generate enough profits last year to pay interest expenses.

After years of empire-building, the company that once symbolized China’s insatiable appetite for global assets has reversed course, selling more than $14 billion of buildings and shares, including its multibillion-dollar stake in Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc.

“Wang’s passing will mark the end of an era of aggressive expansion by HNA,” said Corrine Png, chief executive officer at Crucial Perspective Pte., a Singapore-based research firm focused on transportation. “It will also put HNA Group and related companies’ restructuring plans back on the drawing board, in our view.”

One of HNA’s dollar bonds due in 2018 fell 1.5 cents on the dollar, the biggest drop since Dec. 12, as of 4:59 p.m. in Hong Kong, according to Bloomberg prices. A bond due in 2019 also fell.

“Wang Jian’s death will definitely bring short-term shocks to HNA’s business development,” said Liu Feng, director of the Hainan Normal University Free Trade Port Research Center. “But the long-term impact on the group will be limited.”

Wang, the second-highest ranking executive at the group, owned about 15 percent of the Chinese conglomerate, making him one of the group’s biggest shareholders, according to HNA’s last update of its ownership structure. HNA’s other co-chairman, Chen Feng, and the group’s top-ranking official, also holds a 15 percent stake.

Wang obtained an undergraduate degree in Aviation Management from Civil Aviation University of China in 1983, and a master’s degree in business administration from Holland Maastricht School of Management in 1995, according to HNA. In 1990, he helped establish Hainan Provincial Airlines Co. and was one of the founders of the group.

‘Gifted Leader’

“We mourn the loss of an exceptionally gifted leader and role model, whose vision and values will continue to be a beacon for all who had the good fortune to know him, as well as for the many others whose lives he touched through his work and philanthropy,” HNA said in a statement on Business Wire.

After spending more than $40 billion on a buying spree, it become the largest shareholder in companies such as Deutsche Bank AG and Hilton. HNA’s financial struggles began to emerge in the middle of last year, when its interim report showed the conglomerate paid the highest interest expense among non-financial companies in Asia. HNA’s latest annual report showed the group had more than $90 billion in debt.

Concerns about HNA’s financial situation mounted in the ensuing months amid government scrutiny over the country’s most high-profile acquirers of foreign assets. In November, HNA sold China’s most expensive short-term dollar bond, and a month later China Citic Bank Corp. said a unit of the group had repayment difficulties. In January, as the volume of news about HNA’s liquidity issues were peaking, it suspended six of its listed stocks from trading.

However, the financial concerns have been easing in the last few months after a flurry of asset sales, including its $6 billion sale of Hilton Worldwide shares, helping many of HNA’s bonds rebound from record lows. In June, HNA sold a bond in China after a rare five-month drought, signaling a crucial source of funding for the conglomerate may be opening up.

(Updates with police comment in second paragraph, reaction comment in fifth paragraph, background on HNA from ninth paragraph.)

–With assistance from Dong Lyu and Carrie Hong.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.


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Photo Credit: Wang Jian, co-chairman of HNA (offices pictured here), died unexpectedly in France on Tuesday. He was 57. Bloomberg