Ex-US official trades Trump role for HNA job

After briefly serving in the Trump administration as a senior adviser to commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, Israel Hernandez will help embattled Chinese conglomerate with government relations.

HNA Group, the under-pressure Chinese conglomerate, has hired a former US commerce department official for a senior strategy role, the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

Israel Hernandez, a former senior adviser to US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, will join the Chinese company as its head of international corporate affairs, responsible for developing business strategies and relationships with regulators and stakeholders.

The appointment of Hernandez comes at the time when the sprawling Chinese conglomerate, which spent over $50 billion in the past few years on a global buying spree, is offloading billions of dollars worth of assets to shore up its balance sheet, whiling trying to settle regulatory investigations by foreign governments.

Since the start of the year, HNA has sold more than $10 billion worth of property projects in Hong Kong, Australia and New York, as well as trimming stakes in Deutsche Bank and Hilton Worldwide. HNA has more than $100 billion in outstanding debt, of which about 25% will mature this year.

“Our appointment of Israel Hernandez to this important position reflects the priority we are placing on maintaining an open dialogue with – and providing accurate, timely and strategically aligned information about our business activities to – the wide array of constituents we serve, depend on, and partner with,” Adam Tan, chief executive of HNA Group, said in the statement.

Hernandez reports to Tan. His previous bosses include his fellow Texan George W. Bush – he was an aide to Bush before and during his time as state governor, and worked in a variety of roles in the White House and Department of Commerce during Bush's presidency.

His most recent job was as acting undersecretary for international trade and a senior adviser to Ross, which he held for nine months until December 2017. He has also held senior roles at Facebook and TPG Capital.

Tan said Hernandez’s experience in global trade and commerce would be valuable to the development of the Chinese conglomerate, which has expanded from a local airline operator to a global behemoth with stakes in Brazilian Airlines and a Singapore logistics firm.

With assets and operations spanning 18 countries across six continents, HNA has more $145 billion in assets and had $100 billion in annual revenue for last year.

And it's not hard to see why Hernandez’s political and corporate skills would be attractive to HNA. 

In November last year, Swiss regulators accused HNA of providing false information and failing to disclose how its co-founders controlled a dominant stake during the company's earlier takeover of Zurich-based catering firm Gategroup. In late March, HNA pulled a planned listing of Gategroup, citing a gap in valuation under current market conditions.

In December, New Zealand blocked the sale of a local vehicle finance firm to HNA, with its regulator claiming it was unable to work out the true ownership of HNA.

HNA said Hernandez will work with its affiliates globally to develop business strategies and build relationships with its business partners and regulatory agencies.

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