Unilever has shortlisted a quartet of bidders for Flora and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter – including one of the firms kicked out of the £6.5bn auction earlier this month.
Sky News has learnt that Apollo Global, CVC Capital Partners, KKR and Platinum Equity have been asked by the FTSE-100 consumer goods group to submit fresh offers for its international spreads unit in the coming weeks.
The shortlist has surprised bankers close to the auction, since CVC, which had submitted an initial bid in partnership with Blackstone, its fellow buyout giant, had been told that their provisional offer was inadequate.
Platinum's interest, meanwhile, is thought to be focused on part, rather than all, of the spreads business.
Unilever's selection of the remaining bidders has eliminated a clutch of the company's former executives from potential roles in the future of the division, which also owns the Stork margarine brand.
Vindi Banga, the ex-Unilever foods boss, is a partner at Clayton Dubilier & Rice, which was eliminated after its initial bid with Bain Capital, while Harish Manwani, the company's former chief operating officer and current chairman of Hindustan Lever, its Indian subsidiary, now works for Blackstone.
Insiders said it was likely that Sean Gogarty, who quit as chief executive of Unilever spreads in 2015, was still working for CVC on its interest in the business.
Unilever decided to conduct an auction of the under-performing spreads operations two months after the FTSE-100 company was targeted by an unsolicited £115bn takeover approach from Kraft Heinz, the US-headquartered food giant.
The move from Kraft Heinz sparked a hostile reaction from the Unilever board and rang alarm bells in Downing Street, where Theresa May had vowed to restrict unwanted foreign takeovers.
Unilever could opt to dispose of the spreads business through a demerger to its existing shareholders if final offers from bidders are not sufficiently attractive.
Paul Polman, Unilever's chief executive, has turned to faster-growing categories for takeover opportunities, snapping up the online-based Dollar Shave Club for $1bn last year and Mae Terra, a Brazilian organic food company.
The spreads category has been in long-term decline as increasingly health-conscious consumers have turned to butter-based products.