LOS ANGELES - Mark Hughes, the controversial 44-year-old founder, chairman and chief executive of nutritional and diet products maker Herbalife International Inc., was found dead in his $25 million beachfront mansion, apparently of natural causes, officials said Monday.
The handsome hard-driving businessman, who sparred with regulators in the 1980s and who made an unsuccessful bid to take his company private last month, was found dead in his sleep by family members at about 11 a.m. Sunday (2 p.m. EDT) in his palatial Malibu home.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's deputies said there were no signs of foul play and the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office said an autopsy would be performed this week to determine the cause of death.
A company spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said that Hughes had spent his last days at home with family and celebrated his grandmother's 84th birthday over the weekend.
``This comes as a sudden shock to his friends, relatives, and associates who knew him well,'' the spokesman said.
``Those that have spent time around him saw no reason to suspect anything that would have led to this tragedy,'' the spokesman said.
In a statement, Herbalife officials said the company was ''deeply saddened'' and added that they wanted to reassure employees, distributors, customers, shareholders and vendors, that plans were under way to ensure that the company continued with the spirit and vitality of the founder's vision.
Hughes founded the Los Angeles-based maker of weight-loss and nutritional products in 1980, inspired, he said on his Web site, because his mother ``totally destroyed her entire life just trying to lose 30 pounds.'' She died from a drug overdose when Hughes was 18.
Hughes was sued in the 1980s by the Food and Drug Administration, the California attorney general's office, and the state Department of Health, over what they said were false health claims about Herbalife products and various marketing schemes.
In 1985 in a hearing before a panel of U.S. senators, he defended his diet powders and pills by challenging the scientific experts who questioned the safety of his products: ``If they're such experts, then why are they fat? I've lost 16 pounds in the last few years.''
During the same hearing Hughes admitted that his own education ended at the 9th grade, but that he felt confident in his products nonetheless, adding: ``I defy anybody to be able to produce results as this company has.''
Hughes reached settlements with the regulatory agencies in 1986, the same year the company went public.
The company thrived through a worldwide network of more than 750,000 independent distributors who bought Herbalife products through a multilevel marketing program and resold them to consumers.
In recent months, Hughes had been in a fight to buy back all the shares of company and make it private. But he was unsuccessful in securing financing to buy out shareholders.
The $510-million buyout plan, announced last September, collapsed in April. At the same time as he trying to raise money to take his company private, he was also battling neighbors over plans to build a 45,000-square-foot mansion along a star-studded craggy swatch of the Santa Monica mountains, on land once owned by the Shah of Iran's sister.
The house would have been larger than the White House, taller than the famed Hollywood sign itself, and about the size as the Hearst Castle's main structure.
Already a homeowner in Malibu, Beverly Hills and Maui, Hughes had said he wanted a new home for his three children and new bride, Darcy La Pier, the ex-wife of actor Jean-Claude Van Damme.
He had bought the 157-acre plot from Merv Griffin in 1997, who had incensed locals once already by bulldozing the highest ridge for a six-home development that never materialized.
In October city lawmakers ruled in Hughes' favor and he began moving on his plans for the $50 million house which included 25 rooms, a tennis pavilion, a large guardhouse and a million-gallon pond.
Herbalife class A stock closed down 1-3/16 at a 52-week low of 8-11/16 in late afternoon trading on Nasdaq, well off its year high of 16-3/8. The class B shares closed down 1-1/16 at a 52-week low of 8, against a year high of 16-1/4.