Chen Feng, the founder of China’s largest private airline, has been excluded from the key decision-making body of the HNA Group, in a dramatic development that signals his loss of control of one of the country’s largest conglomerates over five short years.
The name of the entrepreneur, who turns 68 this year, was missing from a list of nine members of HNA Group’s Communist Party committee, the major decision-making body akin to the board of directors in the aviation-to-property conglomerate, according to an announcement on the company’s WeChat account. HNA Group’s spokespeople declined to comment.
Gu Gang, the executive chairman of HNA Group and head of the working group responsible for untangling HNA Group’s 500 billion yuan debt, had set a goal to “deepen and advance the risk settlement work of HNA Group based on law-based and market-based principles to return [the company] to heath and facilitate its stable and long-term growth,” according to a summary of his speech.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
The omission is a dramatic exit by an entrepreneur whose global shopping spree of everything banks to hotels totalled at least 1 trillion yuan (US$154.8 billion) of assets as recently as in 2017, fuelling his ambition to make it among the Fortune 100 list of the world’s largest companies by assets. Chen has been barred from luxury spending since September last year under a court order, after a subsidiary of HNA Group failed to pay an investor in a lawsuit.
HNA Group, which Chen founded in 1993 in Hainan, had ballooned into a global conglomerate with 290,000 employees by 2017. The group started as Hainan Airlines, operating four aircraft to improve transport links between mainland China and its home base on Hainan island, long regarded as “China’s Hawaii” for its tropical beaches, azure waters and holiday resorts.
Fuelled by bank loans and armed with money earned from its aviation business, HNA Group went shopping, raking up stakes in Hilton Hotels and Resorts, Deutsche Bank and Ingram Micro, among dozens of other brand name assets.
The acquisition spree came to an end in 2017 when China’s financial regulators, fearful of risks to the banking industry, cracked down on the debt-fed binge. In February 2020, a working group comprising government officials representing the aviation regulator and Hainan provincial authorities was formed to restructure HNA Group’s finances.
The remaining members of HNA Group’s Communist Party committee are HNA Airport Holding’s chairman Wang Zhen, Hainan Airlines’ chairman Bao Qifa, the carrier’s vice chairman Liu Lu, Sanya Phoenix Airport’s chairman Liu Hauicai, HNA Group’s vice chairman Li Xianhua, HNA Technology Investment’s chairman Li Weijian, HNA Infrastructure Investment Group’s chairman Lu Xiaoming and HNA Innovation’s chairman Liao Hongyu.
The conglomerate has been selling assets to pay back debt amid liquidity crunch. It also faces the risk of its stakes being wiped out in overseas entities such as Swissport, the Switzerland-based airport cargo handling firm, and Virgin Australia, the second largest carrier in Australia.
The restructuring plan of the group could be finalised soon, as Gu said on Monday that the overall risk settlement plan is gradually being hammered out. HNA Group should improve its communication with creditors, in light of its failure to repay its bondholders, which scared away investors.
More from South China Morning Post: