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Avon executives given leave during bribery investigation

NEW YORK — Beauty products seller Avon Products Inc. said Tuesday it has put four executives on administrative leave as part of an investigation of bribery allegations that started in China.

Shares fell $2.23, or 6.4 percent, to $32.53 in midday trading. The stock has traded between $20.63 and $36.39 during the past 52 weeks.

The suspensions were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Avon confirmed the executives put on leave include: S.K. Kao, general manager of Avon China; Jimmy Beh, former finance head for Avon in China and most recently an executive in Malaysia; C.Q. Sun, head of corporate affairs for Avon China; and Ian Rossetter, most recently vice president of finance and tax.

Avon began investigating its China operations in 2008 after it received an allegation that some travel, entertainment and other expenses may have been improper, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Since then, the investigation has spread to other, undisclosed countries, Avon has said.

Avon spokeswoman Jennifer Vargas said in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the investigation is ongoing and the company hasn’t reached any conclusions.

Avon’s overseas sales account for about 80 percent of its revenue, mostly from emerging markets such as Latin America.

In 2009, revenue from China rose less than 1 percent to $353.4 million, while total Avon revenue fell 3 percent to $10.38 billion.

But Avon sees growth in Asia as important for its long-term expansion plans.

“We feel the revenue and profit opportunities in this market are immense, and we are committed to develop and grow our business there,” CFO Charles Cramb said during its most recent quarterly earnings conference call in February.

Last month the company said it plans to open its largest research and development center outside the U.S. in Shanghai in an effort expand Avon’s scientific capabilities in Asia.

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