Founders Asset Management, a Denver-based mutual fund company that has been on the block for several months, is likely to announce its sale this week, people close to the negotiations say.

The field of bidders for Founders-which is expected to fetch $240 million to $300 million-has been narrowed to three, a spokesman confirmed.

Industry investment bankers identified four companies-Chase Manhattan Corp. and the Dutch banking company ING Group, as well as Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. and New England Investment Cos.-as the most likely acquirers. Well-placed sources said, however, that Chase has dropped out of the bidding.

Closely held Founders manages $6.5 billion of assets, including $4.7 billion in mutual funds, the spokesman said. While it has been fielding offers from potential buyers for the last two years, its management started seriously considering bids at the beginning of the year, he added.

If Founders announces a deal this week, it would be the latest in a string of asset managers to sell. This summer Fleet Financial Group and J.P. Morgan & Co. each agreed to buy a fund firm, indicating the serious intentions banks have in the business.

"Virtually all banks are trying to find ways to expand their asset management business," said Diane Glossman, a bank analyst at Salomon Brothers Inc., New York. Banks like the potential earnings growth the business could bring, she added.

Should Chase emerge as Founders' acquirer, it would be the company's first mutual fund acquisition in four years. In 1993 Chase bought six funds with $120 million of managed assets from Olympus Asset Management Co.

A Chase spokesman declined to comment on Founders. But buying a mutual fund company is one option under consideration by a Chase asset management task force headed by Thomas G. Labrecque, Chase's president and chief operating officer, bank executives have said.

Other strategies under examination at Chase include selling the bank's in-house funds without up-front sales fees or loads and setting up a no- transaction-fee fund supermarket.

Officials from Boston-based New England and Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Lincoln National declined to comment. Officials at Amsterdam's ING could not be reached.

Founders' mutual fund assets have doubled during the past two years, the spokesman said. The company's two best-performing portfolios-a growth fund and a balanced fund-each attracted about $600 million of new assets in the last year, according to Avi Nachmany, a partner at Strategic Insights, New York.

That ranks the funds 42d and 48th, respectively, out of about 1,600 mutual funds, for new cash flow, he said.

The company's expected price tag would be in line with the 2% to 5% of managed assets that mutual fund companies have been fetching for the past two years, according to SNL Securities, Charlottesville, Va.

Investment banking firm Putnam, Lovell & Thornton is running the Founders auction.

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