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By Elisha Fieldstadt

American Express president Ed Gilligan died Friday after falling ill on a flight home to New York, the finance company's CEO said. Gilligan was 55.

"This is deeply painful and frankly unimaginable for all of us who had the great fortune to work with Ed, and benefit from his insights, leadership and enthusiasm," said American Express chairman and CEO Ken Chenault in a public letter to employees.

"Ed was a living embodiment of our values," Chenault wrote, adding that he dedicated his "entire career" to the company. Gilligan started at American Express in 1980 as an intern and worked his way up to Vice Chairman in 2007 before becoming president in 2013, the letter said.

The business community anticipated that Chenault would eventually pass the baton to Gilligan, according to Dow Jones Business News.

Gilligan is survived by his wife and four children, "and his love for his family was evident in all he did," Chenault said.