STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England (May 15)—Avon Rubber P.L.C. returned to profitability in the first half of its 2003 fiscal year, but management cautioned that its automotive business faces "challenging markets" in both Europe and North America for the rest of the year. Nonetheless, management is confident about the company's strategic direction, pointing to strong positions it has established in low-pressure automotive hoses, automotive vibration management components, parts for the dairy industry and military respirators. After reporting a loss of $9.8 million a year ago, Avon moved $4.26 million into the black for the six months ended March 31, while sales slipped slightly to $196 million. Avon attributed improvements achieved through a Six Sigma performance program for helping to offset increases in insurance and British pension costs.