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HNA co-founder to take over after tycoon's death in France

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Shanghai (AFP)

The co-founder of China's sprawling HNA conglomerate will take over his partner's duties, the company said Friday, after chairman Wang Jian's accidental death in France raised questions about the firm's future.

Chen Feng, 65, will assume the duties of Wang who fell to his death Tuesday, HNA said in a statement.

The unexpected transition comes as Beijing pressures the company to cut down on massive debts it accumulated during an international buying spree, which saw it snap up shares in a wide range of companies around the world.

Chen founded HNA with Wang and served as the company's co-chairman, in an arrangement that made him the group's number one executive.

The group started as a small provincial airline servicing China's Hainan province but has expanded quickly in recent years under Wang and Chen's leadership.

Now Chen will assume the duties of the 57-year-old Wang, who fell to his death during a sightseeing trip to the picturesque hillside village of Bonnieux in southern France.

HNA's board of directors said the decision "reaffirmed its commitment to the orderly continuity of the company?s strategy and operations", adding it "remains focused on steering the company and its operations through this difficult period".

Wang's stake in the HNA group -- nearly 15 percent -- will be transferred to the company's Cihang Foundation, a charity that already owns more than half of group.

Chen still holds almost 15 percent of the company.

HNA came under pressure last year as Beijing cracked down on the risky debt-fuelled financing that enabled its expansion.

The group's $230 billion in assets was built up during a foreign buying spree that saw it diversify into tourism and finance via major deals to buy shares in companies including the Hilton hotels group and Deutsche Bank.

It also took stakes in foreign airlines such as Virgin Australia, France's Aigle Azur and TAP in Portugal.

The conglomerate has started selling parts of its empire to pay down its loans, including its Hilton and Deutsche Bank shares, and Wang's death was seen as likely to complicate the unwinding process.

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