HNA chairman tightens family's grip on group

Management changes come as debt-laden group tries to regain investors' confidence

HNA Group chairman Chen Feng has promoted his son and a nephew as key lieutenants, consolidating his family's control over the embattled Chinese conglomerate.
HNA Group chairman Chen Feng has promoted his son and a nephew as key lieutenants, consolidating his family's control over the embattled Chinese conglomerate.PHOTO: REUTERS
HNA Group chairman Chen Feng has promoted his son and a nephew as key lieutenants, consolidating his family's control over the embattled Chinese conglomerate.
HNA Group chairman Chen Feng has promoted his son and a nephew as key lieutenants, consolidating his family's control over the embattled Chinese conglomerate.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • HNA Group chairman Chen Feng this month promoted two family members as key lieutenants, tightening his family's control over the embattled Chinese conglomerate after the sudden death of a top executive.

His son is now deputy chief executive officer of the group and will be responsible for HNA's global business, said sources. The 65-year-old chairman also named his nephew as group chief investment officer and executive chairman of an investment unit.

The management changes come as Mr Chen seeks to restore the confidence of banks, investors and the government in a group that is saddled with one of the biggest piles of debt in corporate China - more than US$85 billion (S$117 billion) as of the end of December.

The death of HNA co-chairman Wang Jian last month threw a wrench at the company's normalisation plans as he was said to be the mastermind behind the purchase of many of the assets that are now being sold.

"Changes at HNA that international investors would like to see may not come so soon," said credit research firm Bondcritic's managing partner Warut Promboon.

"The appointment of family members to run the business shows us HNA remains a traditional Asian company."

HNA was at the forefront of an unprecedented shopping spree by acquisition-hungry firms seeking out high-profile assets around the world before the Chinese government started reining them in last year amid concerns about unsustainable corporate debt levels. The company also caught the attention of regulators in the US and Europe over questions about its ownership.

As to incoming deputy CEO Daniel Chen, he was appointed in June as an assistant to the late co-chairman and prior to that, chairman Chen's son was president of HNA North America. This month, he and his cousin were put on the board of Swissport Group, a luggage handler that HNA acquired in 2015. Mr Adam Tan remains CEO of the group.

According to the younger Mr Chen's profile at New Jersey's Pingry School, where he is a trustee, he is also vice-general secretary at the Cihang charity that serves as a big shareholder of HNA Group, and president of investment firm Pacific American Investment.

He has an industrial engineering degree from the University of Washington, and also completed Harvard Business School's China Business Leader Executive Training Programme, according to the profile.

Then there is the chairman's nephew, Mr Dennis Chen or Mr Chen Chao in Chinese, who is now CIO of the group.

According to a bond prospectus document last year, the new CIO is in his mid-30s, has more than 11 years of management experience and an undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts. He held various positions at HNA Group International, a unit formed in Hong Kong in 2010 to be the Chinese conglomerate's offshore investment and foreign capital management arm.

"It certainly seems that the chairman is trying to consolidate control over the group," said Mr Nigel Stevenson, an analyst in Hong Kong at GMT Research.

But the Chen family may be facing more pressing issues than questions about HNA's governance. The group is so indebted that its interest expenses surged to a record 32.1 billion yuan last year, exceeding its earnings and topping all other non-financial companies in Asia. To cope with its debts, the company has sold more than US$17 billion in assets this year and recently agreed to sell its Radisson hotel chain and a US$2.2 billion stake in an Irish air-leasing firm. It is also in talks to sell a stake in Swissport.

Chairman Chen owns 15 per cent of HNA, the largest stake held among company executives. The group is majority owned by a few charities set up by HNA.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2018, with the headline 'HNA chairman tightens family's grip on group'. Subscribe