NEW YORK — Burt’s Bees is again topping the list of companies said to be close to being bought out. Executives from the Raleigh, N.C.-based maker of natural cosmetics, lip balms and salves were not available for comment but sources familiar with the company said a deal is imminent. “They strategically broadened their product categories to include color and more upscale skin care products to make them more attractive as a complete beauty brand,” said one source.

While a specific buyer is not known, the source added that company co-founder Roxanne Quimby has publicly lauded beauty groups Estée Lauder and Unilever as companies she admires and ones that could be interested in her company. However, private financial groups have been emerging in the beauty industry as qualified buyers of beauty firms, too. In the fall of 2001, Chicago-based financial institution The Hathi Group won a bid for the Sarah Michaels and Freeman brands from The Dial Corp. But financial houses don’t always have the know-how to lead a brand to success. Sarah Michaels LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Hathi Group, was forced into bankruptcy earlier this month.

Burt’s Bees entered the beauty industry in the Nineties when company founders Quimby and Burt Shavitz discovered their all-natural candle wax business could be used as a base for beauty products. Soon, Quimby and Shavitz began making lotions, soaps and eventually cosmetics for their loyal customer base comprising mainly of nature-loving women.

Today, Quimby, along with her two sisters, Renee and Rochelle, run the company, which sells Burt’s Bees in approximately 9,000 retailers nationwide, including Whole Foods Markets, Longs Drug Stores, Drugstore.com and specialty retailer Anthropologie. About 40 percent of the company’s retail base is made up of natural food stores. In an interview last year, Quimby said she expected the company to generate retail sales of $90 million for 2002.

Recent reports are citing that Quimby’s passions outside the beauty world could be fueling the most recent round of “for sale” rumors. Quimby’s interest in purchasing tens of thousands of acres of forest land in Maine, where she resides, to preserve its green landscape is said to be her greatest passion these days. Reports said that Quimby would likely take the company’s proceeds to fund her nature cause.Quimby’s direction for Burt’s Bees has led it to its current success, the source said, and added while her passion may now lie in nature preservation and not in lip balms, the brand would be put in jeopardy if she didn’t continue to play an instrumental role in the brand’s future. “[Burt’s Bees] has always had that homespun approach and if you take that away, her loyal customers would see that,” the source said.

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