HONG KONG/NEW YORK (Reuters) - An Indian-American dealmaker for HNA Group, who recently held a big stake in the Chinese conglomerate, said he kept the shares for a decade as an “accommodation” to the company and received no compensation for doing so.
HNA shook up its ownership structure in July by transferring a near 30 percent stake, comprising shares formerly held by the dealmaker, Bharat Bhise, and a Chinese man identified as Guan Jun, to a newly-formed charity in New York.
Bhise said HNA’s senior executives asked him to hold the stock ahead of forming the charity. The reason was that he is not a Chinese citizen and would not need Beijing’s approval to hold shares outside of China, he said in his first interview since HNA announced the shareholding shakeup.
“I’ve been put in the press as some sort of mysterious person,” Bhise, 63, said at his office in Hong Kong on Friday. “They were never my shares. I was holding them in trust.”
Bhise, who managed George Soros’s 1995 investment in Hainan Airlines (600221.SS), HNA’s flagship asset, and sat on the aviation company’s board until 2000, emerged in the last decade as a top dealmaker for HNA.
He is a board member of five HNA-invested companies, including Avolon Holdings, an aircraft leasing firm, and Ingram Micro, a U.S. electronics distributor.
Bhise, as chairman of Bravia Capital, a Hong Kong-based boutique investment firm, also co-invested with HNA in a series of offshore investments, including in SeaCo, a marine container company, MyCargo Airlines and Africa World Airlines.
Headquartered in the southern Chinese island of Hainan, the privately-owned HNA has fielded many questions about its shareholding structure this year after Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire, alleged that “officials in China’s Communist Party and their relatives were undisclosed shareholders” in the group.
He also alleged that HNA had allowed Chinese government officials and their relatives to use its aircraft “for purely personal reasons.”
The attention on the company’s ownership has had a “terrible” impact on the group by impeding its ability to raise funds and has brought him great stress, Bhise said.
Banks he has long worked with have called him to say they needed to respond to questions from U.S. regulators about who he is, he added.
“I have had a very, very stressful year,” he said.
HNA, which owns airlines, hotels, real estate and a near 10 percent stake in Germany’s Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE), has denied Guo’s allegations and has sued for defamation.
It declined to comment for this story.
Little is known about Guan, the other holder of shares that were transferred, and Bhise said he has not met him. Reuters was unable to track down Guan to seek comment, and when asked HNA did not provide a phone number or email address for him.
“Is the Chinese government a shareholder, somehow mysteriously cloaked behind me and Guan Jun and other people? I can tell you unequivocally that I don’t believe that to be the case,” Bhise said.
After HNA’s restructuring, the New York-based foundation and a China-based charity collectively hold 52.25 percent of HNA shares. A dozen founding and senior executives hold 47.5 percent in the group, led by HNA’s founding chairmen, Chen Feng and Wang Jian.
Bhise said he held the shares from about 2004 and his understanding from the start with HNA’s management was that the shares would one day be given to charities or HNA employees.
HNA holds 1.2 trillion yuan ($180.4 billion) worth of assets, according to the company’s latest filings, and Bhise said he had previously held approximately a 12.5 percent stake in HNA as the beneficial shareholder of Headstreams Investment Co, a Hong Kong registered firm.
Bhise also said he was director of Pan American Holdings, another HNA vehicle, but was not a shareholder. Various corporate filings show Bhise as a Pan American shareholder, and with a 17.4 percent interest in HNA.
It was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy between the size of the stake that Bhise said he held and the size shown in the filings.
Bhise said the shares had “no value” for him and he received no payment for holding them.
“This was an accommodation that I did because I am a trusted person,” he said. “I didn’t do anything that I believe was in any way wrong.”
HNA’s board reclaimed the shares from him in 2016 after broaching the idea in 2015, he said.
HNA’s founders and top management want to ensure their shares are signed over to the charities when they die, Bhise said.
“The senior management are devout Buddhists,” he said. “They always had the intent that life is transitional, money is transitional, it should not go from generation to generation.”
Reporting by Koh Gui Qing in New York and Matthew Miller in Hong Kong; Editing by Philip McClellan