updated 2/1/2006 3:03:51 PM ET 2006-02-01T20:03:51

Burger King’s parent company said Wednesday it plans to sell shares to the public for the first time in the fast-food chain’s 52-year history, as it tries to compete more effectively with rivals McDonald’s Corp. and Wendy’s International Inc.

Burger King Holdings Inc. plans to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering in late February or early March, Chairman and CEO Greg Brenneman said.

“Our goal has always been to take Burger King public,” Brenneman said in a statement. “We believe the transparency and stability in ownership offered by being a public company will benefit our employees and franchisees for years to come.”

The Miami-based company declined further comment citing U.S. securities law. Owen Blicksilver, a spokesman for the three private equity firms that own the chain, also declined comment.

The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said it placed Burger King’s B-plus credit rating under review for a possible upgrade after the announcement. The agency estimated the IPO would be for at least $600 million.

The “company has the opportunity to further improve operating performance over the next few years through menu changes, further strengthening of store execution and advertising, and expanding store hours,” credit analyst Diane Shand said.

But she added that progress could be “slow and uneven” because of intense competition.

Restaurant industry consultant Allan Hickok said Burger King’s timing was right, considering the success last week of McDonald’s spin-off of Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. Its shares doubled on their first day of trading.

“You have to hit the public markets when they’re receptive. Right now, I think you have a very favorable market environment,” he said.

Of the top three burger chains, only Burger King has never reaped the benefits of being a publicly traded company. Burger King was long the second-largest hamburger chain behind No. 1 McDonald’s, but it fell into a tie for No. 2 with Wendy’s in 2004, according to research firm Technomic Inc.

Burger King doesn’t report exact sales figures, but Technomic estimated that its U.S. sales were $7.7 billion in 2004, down more than 2 percent from $7.9 billion in 2003.

Officials at McDonald’s and Wendy’s didn’t return messages seeking comment.

The equity firms — Texas Pacific Group, Bain Capital and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners — bought Burger King from British liquor conglomerate Diageo PLC in 2002 for $1.5 billion. The price was reduced from the initially agreed $2.26 billion because of Burger King’s troubles.

Burger King was started in 1954 with one restaurant in Miami. Co-founders James McLamore and David Edgerton opened several more restaurants in the Miami area, but they struggled until the launch of the Whopper sandwich, McLamore wrote in a book about the chain.

Pillsbury Co. bought it in 1967 and Burger King has been owned by other companies since then.

Brenneman was brought in to revitalize the chain in August 2004, the company’s 10th CEO in 15 years. The turnaround specialist helped lead Continental Airlines Inc. out of bankruptcy and into profitability.

Under Brenneman, the company launched several new products and an aggressive advertising campaign. Burger King will advertise on the Super Bowl broadcast for the first time in a decade on Sunday, with a one-minute spot that will also be sent to owners of Sprint cell phones that show video.

The company said last month that it has registered seven consecutive quarters of same-store sales increases, considered a key measure of retail health.

The sales growth was welcome news for independent franchisees, who own about 90 percent of Burger King’s more than 11,000 restaurants. Several large franchisees filed for bankruptcy over the past decade.

An IPO should help Burger King continue the growth, said Alan Vituli, chief executive of Carrols Corp. of Syracuse, N.Y., the chain’s biggest franchisee with 340 restaurants.

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