China's HNA charity turns to former German official for leadership

BEIJING (Reuters) - Former German Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler has been appointed to the top job at HNA Group’s New York-based foundation, a move intended to provide stability and legitimacy for the Chinese conglomerate’s charitable efforts in the United States.

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Roesler becomes the first chief executive of Hainan Cihang Charity Foundation Inc, a New York-based not-for-profit corporation, the foundation said Thursday.

The foundation is the largest shareholder of HNA Group Co [HNAIRC.UL], the highly acquisitive Chinese conglomerate that holds large stakes in Hilton Worldwide Holdings HLT.N and Deutsche Bank AG DBKGn.DE.

Hainan Cihang said it planned to contribute up to $200 million toward charitable undertakings over the next five years, including $30 million in pledges to Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Calvary Hospital in New York.

Officially registered with the New York attorney general in September, Hainan Cihang will focus at first on programs to provide healthcare, education and entrepreneurship, Roesler said in an interview with Reuters.

Hainan Cihang “will grant and support financially some projects,” Roesler said. “We won’t hire doctors to make vaccinations, but what we can do is support organizations doing this.”

Roesler said he expected Hainan Cihang to work closely with the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on refugee issues, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean.

HNA Group, the aviation-to-property and financial services conglomerate that has entered into $50 billion worth of deals over two years, announced the establishment of Hainan Cihang in July, as part of a wider attempt to clear-up questions about its shareholding structure.

Hainan Cihang is now HNA’s biggest shareholder, with 29.5 percent of group stock, while a sister foundation based in mainland China holds 22.75 percent of the conglomerate.

Roesler, while aware of media reports concerning HNA’s ownership structure and short-term financing problems, said he remained “optimistic” he would be able to focus on his current job and the “mission of the foundation”.

HNA announced its restructuring in July, listing the two charities and 12 HNA founders and executives as shareholders, leading to heightened scrutiny by global banks and regulators.

For at least 10 years, around 17 percent of HNA’s shares were held in trust by Bharat Bhise, a key HNA banker, as a “favor” to the company, Bhise told Reuters. Those shares, along with another stake, were transferred to Hainan Cihang.

In November, the Swiss Takeover Board said HNA gave partially untrue or incomplete information about its shareholders during its acquisition of the Swiss airline catering firm Gategroup last year.

HNA Group’s chief executive, Adam Tan, acts as chairman of Hainan Cihang’s board of directors. Other directors include Guang Yang, HNA Capital’s chief investment officer, and Chen Guoqing, brother of HNA Group founder and chairman Chen Feng.

Dividends for Hainan Cihang’s shareholding in HNA Group is likely to provide additional funding, Roesler said, adding that an evaluation of the “exact value” of the 29.5 percent stake was now underway.

Roesler comes to the Hainan Cihang from the World Economic Forum, where he was a managing board member. Roesler, trained as a medical doctor, earlier served as Germany’s health minister as well as economics and technology minister.

Reporting By Matthew Miller; Editing by Philip McClellan