Avon Products Inc.
Christina Gold, who once shunned public speaking, eventually overcame her shyness, which allowed her to rise to Avon's executive suite. After 19 years and about 20 different jobs with Avon Canada, she was named head of that operation in 1989. In 1993 she became the first female president of Avon's North American operations, where her problem-solving skills and practical ideas turned the ailing cosmetics company around. Known for its long-time commitment to empowering women, many within and outside the company were stunned in 1997 when Gold and two other women were passed over for the chief executive officer (CEO) position. Gold resigned from Avon in February of 1998.
Gold was born Christina Engelsman on September 12, 1947, in the Netherlands, the second of three children. Her father was a Dutch former Olympic gymnast and military officer, and her mother was a Canadian nurse and painter. The family immigrated to Montreal, Canada when Gold was four years old. She was shy and over-weight as a teenager and worked at the candy counter of a local theater. Her father was a large influence in her life. Gold told Paul D. Wisenthal in Newsday, "He told me, 'You have to do your very best and be fair with people'." She credits her love of people to her mother.
After graduating from Beaconsfield High School in 1965, Gold attended Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she met her future husband, Peter M. Gold. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in geography in 1969. A longtime Avon employee and executive until 1998, she is also a director of the Conference Board, Inc. of Canada, and a member of the executive committee of the Conference Board in New York. In addition, she serves on the board of directors of the Direct Selling Association and ITT Industries.
Gold was named one of Business Week's Top 25 Managers in 1996 and received the Woman of Distinction award from Birmingham Southern University. Her interests include painting, skiing, reading, and going to the theater. Since 1970 she has lived outside Montreal and maintained a country retreat on the shore of Lac L'Achigan, about 45 miles north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains.
After graduating from college, Gold began her career working at Brooke Bond Foods, Ltd. as an accountant adding up the discount coupons that customers redeemed at the supermarket checkout. She then took a job making $100 a week—a $10 a week increase—at Avon Canada in order to help her husband buy a desk for his newly-opened law office. Because she did a great job in inventory control, she was soon promoted to marketing. Though her future with Avon Canada looked bright, the company absorbed the marketing area into its United States headquarters in New York City. Her husband could not relocate his practice, so Gold took a position in sales promotions, which did not hold the same promise of advancement.
The head of human resources, Mun Lavigne, saw Gold's potential and became her mentor. "I read her performance appraisals," Lavigne told Claudia H. Deutsch in the New York Times, "and I knew this woman should be moved ahead." He encouraged her to take a step down in order to get a different kind of management experience and helped her overcome her fear of public speaking. He required her to give a speech to senior management in New York and made her rehearse it repeatedly. Though she was upset with him and threatened to quit, Lavigne kept challenging her.
A couple years later, Gold asked to be put in charge of sales in an English-speaking, suburban area of Canada. Lavigne responded by making her head of sales in downtown, French-speaking Montreal. He kept pushing her to improve sales in poor-performing areas, and she continued to show results. "Christina had a feeling for people," Lavigne told Wisenthal in Newsday. "Although a shy person, she was a great problem-solver, and her co-workers liked and respected her a lot." Her career kept her moving through the company and, after having held 20 different positions in 19 years, she was named head of Avon Canada in 1989.
While Avon Canada thrived under Gold, its American operations languished, wiping out three presidents in six years, and opening the door to a possible hostile takeover in 1990 by Chartwell Inc. In 1993 Avon chairman James Preston asked Gold to come and revive the ailing operations. This was a critical arm of the Avon empire, as U.S. revenues totaled 35 percent of Avon's worldwide sales of $4 billion. Without question, the U.S. operations needed a capable leader.
But there was so much for Gold to consider. The decision to relocate to Avon's New York headquarters was not easy. Though she had decided early on not to have any children, she was concerned about what her husband thought about the major change in their lives. "If my husband had said he would not or could not have moved, I wouldn't have done it," Gold told Cynthia Rigg in Crain's New York Business. Though he had an established law practice and had served on their local suburban city council, Gold's husband told her it would be an adventure. She moved to New York in late 1993 to take the job and he stayed near Montreal until 1995, when he closed his practice to move to New York to attend Columbia University's graduate law school and explore business opportunities.
Chronology: Christina Gold
1969: Hired as an accountant with Brooke Bond Foods Ltd.
1970: Joined Avon Canada Inc.
1989: Named head of Avon Canada.
1993: Became the first female president of Avon, North America.
1995: Avon sales soared to $765 million, up from $140 million two years earlier.
1996: Named one of the Top 25 Managers by Business Week.
1998: Resigned from Avon.
In her new position, Gold oversaw operations in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. She brought the division's share up to about 40 percent of Avon's sales, instituting a number of new ideas to facilitate the improvement. The 400,000-person sales force at the time was upset about a new direct-mail catalog, which they believed was the first step toward phasing out their jobs. In all, about 25,000 sales representatives quit. Gold raised morale by reintroducing a rewards catalog for sales representatives (the previous president decided to offer rewards in the form of savings bonds only), and opening up communication so that salespeople could learn from one another.
In addition, Gold kick-started sales and raised profits, which had fallen about 30 percent. She got rid of slow-selling gift items, expanded the apparel line, and improved the offering of non-cosmetic products, including games, videos, books, and toys. She entered a partnership with Mattel to add Barbie dolls to the catalog; a big coup. She went out into the field to motivate the sales force. In 1997 when she stepped down as president to become executive vice president of global direct selling development, some thought she may be removing herself from the running to become CEO. Gold disagreed, claiming that she was assuming control of an integral area of the firm. It was an unpleasant surprise for many in 1997 when Gold, along with two other top Avon performers, were overlooked for the CEO position. The job went to Charles Perrin, a former CEO of Duracell International, Inc., the battery maker. Gold resigned in February of 1998.
Social and Economic Impact
For many women, Avon products symbolize female fraternity and empowerment. Most women are familiar with the colorful, glossy, digest-sized catalogs shimmering with fresh-faced models wearing the low-cost makeup. Women can conveniently shop for gifts such as jewelry, cologne, knick-knacks, toys, and more recently, clothing and lingerie, through the catalog. They have personal contact with a sales representative, typically someone they know in their community, workplace, and church. The sales representative gets a commission from the sale and delivers the items to clients at their home or office.
Like Mary Kay and other home product sales outfits, Avon offers people the opportunity to make money while working outside their home or to supplement an existing income, while working at their own pace. Its corporate vision, is "to be the company that best understands and satisfies the product, service, and self-fulfillment needs of women-globally."
Though the politically incorrect term "Avon lady" is not accurate—there are men on the force as well—the company is still known as one of the preeminent organizations that sell cosmetics among female friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers, with 98 percent of its revenue coming from direct sales. Once known as a mainly door-to-door operation serving women who did not work outside the home, Avon used to use the slogan "Avon calling!" accompanied by a "ding-dong" doorbell noise. However, the company has updated its image and in 1996 sold about 50 percent of its goods in the workplace.
Gold helped keep the firm on its feet and made sure that the salespeople were satisfied when she took over as president of Avon's North American operations in 1993. By boosting morale and incentives and making some savvy marketing decisions, Gold beefed up Avon sales to close to $5 billion which also breathed life into its stock. She recruited new Avon representatives—Avon has a total of almost 2.3 million of them in 131 countries—and added popular products to the established cosmetics lines. Though many were upset that neither she nor two other top players, Andrea Jung and Susan Kropf, were handed the CEO rank in 1997, Avon defended its decision.
Avon has had a reputation as being friendly to women in its corporate ranks as well as in its general sales force, unlike many big companies. As of 1997, some Fortune 500 industries did not have any women as corporate officers. Tobacco, securities, rubber and plastic, entertainment, hotels, casinos, and resorts showed no female officers, according to a study by Catalyst in the Washington Post. Retail, on the other hand, boasted 37 percent female officers, with diversified financials at 16 percent and publishing and printing at 15 percent. Cosmetics, soap, and computer software each showed that 11 percent of their officers were female. Overall, only 3 percent of top executives at Fortune 500 companies in 1997 were women.
Avon is a leader among these firms. It was one of 250 firms that helped form Catalyst, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting economic opportunity among women. It has a good record of promoting women, with four females in its top slots. By 1996, 44 percent of its senior vice presidents were women and more than 25 percent of all vice presidents were women. However, the seven-man, four-woman board decided that their most prominent women, including Gold, who had spent nearly three decades at the firm were not ready to become CEO.
Sources of Information
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