HNA Group co-founder Wang Jian. Photo: AFP / Eric Piermont

He was a colorful, charismatic character with an eye for the “big deal” before ending up as a black and white footnote of Chinese corporate history. Wang Jian was just 57 years old when he died in a freak fall in the south of France earlier this week.

Reportedly worth US$7 billion, he was the driving force behind the rapid global expansion of the sprawling HNA Group, which he helped launch in 1993.

When news of his death filtered through to the conglomerate’s headquarters in the port city of Haikou on Hainan island in southern China, the shock waves reverberated around the glass and chrome building.

In a mark of respect, the official website suddenly became black and white, a sign of mourning in the world’s second-largest economy.

“Together, 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,” the HNA Group board and management team stated.

In a bizarre but tragic accident, Wang fell off a 15-meter wall in the village of Bonnieux in Provence while on a business trip to France.

Corporate world

Lieutenant-Colonel Hubert Meriaux of the Vaucluse gendarmerie, or police force, confirmed that the HNA chairman had slipped off a ledge.

“He stood on the edge of a sharp drop to get his family to take a picture of him and fell,” Meriaux said, adding that the authorities were not treating his death as suspicious.

Still, reports are starting to emerge of the overall health of one of China’s top tycoons, who cut a flamboyant sway through the corporate world with lavish overseas acquisitions.

A close friend was quoted as saying that Wang suffered from heart problems. Over dinner last month, they discussed the “pressure” he was under as HNA mounted a restructuring program by offloading billions of dollars of overseas assets, which included a London property portfolio, and investments in Deutsche Bank and the Hilton chain.

“Wang Jian had a hereditary heart disease, and he had undergone heart surgery before,” the friend told Caixin, the Chinese business and news organization based in Beijing. “He had been under great pressure recently.”

Amber lights started flashing earlier this year when China’s ‘big beasts’ of the business jungle were warned to rein in excessive spending as part of Beijing’s war on ballooning debt.

Fearful of the economic risks from nearly a decade of expansion, these massive conglomerates have become known as “Gray Rhinos” or rogue “creatures” that tend to charge at any moment, wreaking financial havoc.

HNA appeared in danger of slipping into that category.

Since 2015, it had invested an estimated $40 billion on acquisitions in a huge buying binge, holding major stakes in airport services firm Swissport and airline caterer Gate Gourmet, as well as Germany’s leading lender Deutsche Bank, the Hilton Hotel Group and Carlson Hotels, which runs the Radisson chain.

On paper these are all solid companies with shiny brand names, while HNA had assets hovering around the $80 billion mark, the Financial Times reported in 2016. But during the past few years, the company has been trying to level a debt mountain, which could be at least $90 billion as it battles to rebalance the books.

‘Financial obligations’

“If HNA simply cannot meet its financial obligations, we expect regulators to broker a debt restructuring,” Michael Hirson, the Asia director of the consultancy Eurasia Group, said back in February. “The removal of senior management will likely be a condition of any explicit or implicit bailout.”

Wang, of course, had been a leading player in HNA’s rapid rise.

Born in Tianjin, North China, he graduated from the Civil Aviation University of China, which was formerly the Civil Aviation Institute, with a bachelor’s degree in airline management before going on to obtain an MBA from the Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands.

In 1993, he co-founded HNA, which has evolved from a regional airline into a Fortune 500 company, focusing on aviation, tourism, logistics and financial services with a global workforce of about 410,000.

Last year, annual revenue was 600 billion yuan (US$90.43 billion), while assets were 1 trillion yuan, the group’s official website claimed.

Naturally, Wang was instrumental in building this corporate empire, with a labyrinth of domestic entities such as HNA Aviation & Tourism, HNA Logistics, HNA Capital and HNA Technology, and was part of the process of slimming down a bloated organization.

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

Maybe, but only time will tell if the company will continue its restructuring program or end up in the “Gray Rhino” trap.

Read: Rampaging ‘Gray Rhinos’ pose threat to China’s economy

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