The chairman of Chinese conglomerate HNA Group, Wang Jian, died from injuries sustained after falling 15 metres (50 feet) onto rocks while posing for a photograph during a visit to France, local police said.
The incident happened in the village of Bonnieux in the Provence region, an officer from the nearby town of Pertuis told the South China Morning Post in a telephone interview.
HNA Group had earlier issued a statement saying the 57 year old had been on a business trip. It did not give the circumstances of Wang’s death or provide an exact location.
The police officer, who declined to be named, said Wang climbed onto a “small wall” for a photograph but lost his balance and fell. The incident happened just before 11am, he said.
A colonel with the Vaucluse gendarmerie, which is responsible for security in the region, told the Post that the wall was about 1.2 metres high and overlooked a cliff. Wang was standing on it when he tumbled 10-15 metres to the rocks below, said the officer, who also declined to give his name.
He said an autopsy had been carried out and that “nothing suspicious has been found”.
Wang had been travelling with four other people and a tour guide, the colonel said, adding that the Chinese consulate in Marseille had been notified.
A clerk at the Chinese embassy in Paris earlier told the Post she had no information on the case.
Witness accounts seemed to confirm Wang’s death had been accidental, according to a Reuters report that cited Lt Colonel Hubert Meriaux of the Vaucluse gendarmerie.
As well as the short statement announcing Wang’s death, senior executives from HNA Group, including co-founder Chen Feng and chief executive Adam Tan, issued a statement in English offering their condolences to their colleague’s family.
“HNA Group extends deepest condolences to Mr Wang’s family and many friends,” it said. “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 company also published its website in monochrome as an apparent mark of respect.
Wang was one of the driving forces behind the massive expansion of HNA Group.
As co-founders, he and Chen transformed a regional airline based in China’s tropical island province of Hainan into a conglomerate with US$230 billion in assets.
Sources close to the company said Wang took a hands-on approach to running the company although Chen tended to be its public face.
Wang’s death came just over a month after HNA Group denied rumours that Chen had died.
HNA had been on a leveraged shopping spree around the globe until about a year ago, spending an estimated US$40 billion since 2015 on a 25 per cent stake in the Hilton hotel group, shares in Deutsche Bank, several golf courses, and four pieces of land in Hong Kong that sold for record prices.
That all ended, however, when the Chinese government moved to curb overseas investment by private conglomerates as part of a wider campaign to contain financial risk. In less than a year, HNA went from buyer to seller. In the past few months, it has completed several major deals, including the disposal of its 25 per cent stake in Spain’s NH Hotel Group for US$726 million and the sale of an office tower in Minneapolis, Minnesota for US$320 million.
According to a statement released by the company in July last year, Wang and Chen were identified as its largest individual shareholders, with each holding a near-15 per cent stake. They and 10 other individuals own a combined 47.5 per cent of the company.
According to a pledge signed by the 12 stakeholders, in the event of any of them leaving the group or dying while in employment, their shares will be shared among the New York and Hainan branches of the Hainan Cihang Charity Foundation.
Additional reporting by Raphael Blet