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Avon Weighing Coty Request to See Books

Direct seller to take a week to consider Coty's request for information that would help it firm up its $10.65 billion takeover offer.

Avon Products Inc. every so slightly opened the door to Coty Inc. Sunday, saying it would take a week to consider the company’s request for information that would help it firm up its $10.65 billion takeover offer.

“Avon’s board of directors, in conjunction with management and the company’s financial and legal advisors, will consider Coty’s letter dated May 9, 2012,” the company said. “Avon’s board expects to respond within a week.”

In Coty’s letter, chairman Bart Becht, said, “We are prepared to sign a confidentiality agreement with standstill provisions that would restrict us from taking further public steps in seeking to acquire Avon so long as you agree in good faith to provide us with requested information on a timely basis.”

Becht, who in the letter gave Avon a deadline of today, also said uberinvestor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was backing the offer.

Avon rejected Coty’s initial $10 billion offer on April 2 and Becht has been appealing to the firm’s shareholders, saying that only with a look at the company’s books could he put his best price forward.

Not only is Avon struggling to revamp its operations, the company is dealing with a growing list of legal issues.

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently opened a third line of inquiry touching on the firm.

The government watchdog is looking into trading of Avon stock that took place before Coty’s offer became public. An Avon spokeswoman said Friday the company was “cooperating in the matter” and declined to comment further. The SEC declined to comment and Coty could not be reached.

It is illegal to use inside information while trading stocks, but it is unclear just what the SEC is exploring and what impact the inquiry might have on Avon, if any.

Even one brush with the SEC is usually seen as a distraction for a company, and Avon already has a very full plate. Sheri McCoy, a former Johnson & Johnson executive, recently took over as chief executive officer from Andrea Jung and is reviewing the company’s operations.

And the SEC is already looking into whether the company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying bribes to open up the Chinese market for direct selling in April 2005. Just the investigation into that matter cost Avon nearly $250 million over three years. The company’s ultimate liability could equal three times the profits made possible by the bribes.

The regulatory body is also looking into the company’s dealing with Wall Street analysts.

Even with Buffett signaling he’s ready to charge in, shareholders have remained skeptical about the prospects of Coty being able to acquire Avon. Shares of the company fell 3.4 percent to $20.19 Friday. That’s well below the $24.75 Coty has proposed, although the company wants a look at Avon’s books before it can firm up its offer.