A New York investment firm believes Portland’s Apothecary by Design is poised to become a major national player in the fast-growing pharmaceutical industry that provides specialized fertility drugs to women.

BelHealth Investment Partners has acquired a controlling interest in the independent pharmacy for an undisclosed sum, estimated to be between $20 million and $50 million, the company confirmed Monday.

“We knew that in the business we’re in, to be able to grow we needed access to capital,” said Apothecary by Design co-founder and CEO Mark McAuliffe. Under the acquisition deal, the company will maintain its headquarters in Portland and will begin looking for independent pharmacies to acquire along the East Coast and possibly in the Midwest, he said.

Apothecary by Design would become the corporate parent for any specialty pharmacies it acquires, McAuliffe said. Depending on their existing positions in the market, those pharmacies could retain their original brands or take on the parent company’s name and branding, he said.

McAuliffe stressed that the pharmacy’s customers will not perceive any changes under the new corporate structure.

“They should notice no difference,” he said. “BelHealth wants our approach to be the same or better.”

INVESTING IN FERTILITY INDUSTRY

According to its website, BelHealth acquires majority positions in entrepreneur-owned companies that it believes would benefit from its operating and private-equity investment expertise. The firm typically invests $20 million to $50 million per company across three health care segments: services, products and distribution. It provides capital to rapidly grow portfolio companies with the goal of selling them within three to five years.

The firm acquired another specialty pharmacy, Pittsburgh-based Aureus Health Services, in December 2012, expanded the business and sold it to Michigan-based supermarket chain Meijer Inc. in June, according to its website.

The private equity firm hopes to accomplish something similar with Apothecary by Design, stressing the opportunity it sees in the $2 billion-a-year-and-growing fertility industry.

“Given BelHealth’s prior experience in the specialty pharmacy sector through our investments in Aureus and Linden Care (another specialty pharmacy it still owns), we can leverage our industry knowledge and relationships to build another successful national platform,” BelHealth Managing Director Nathan Kronforst said in a statement. “(Apothecary by Design) is well-positioned in the fragmented fertility segment of the pharmacy market and we look forward to establishing the company as the pre-eminent specialty pharmacy in the U.S. specializing in women’s health.”

SALES OF $90 MILLION AND GROWING

Over the past two years, Apothecary by Design LLC has made multiple lists of fastest-growing companies. It was ranked No. 4 among the fastest-growing privately held companies in Maine on the most recent Inc. 5000 list, based on three-year growth of 382 percent from 2011 to 2014.

The company expanded in 2013 into a second, larger facility at 141 Preble St. Its original retail pharmacy location at 84 Marginal Way remains open.

Apothecary by Design is actually three businesses in one. It has a retail pharmacy and coffee shop; a compounding operation where drugs are put into their proper dosage and form such as pills or injections; and a specialty pharmacy that makes drugs for treating people with medical conditions such as organ transplants, infertility or AIDS. The company’s sales have skyrocketed from $3.6 million in 2009, its first full year of operation, to about $90 million in 2014. Its staff has grown from about 20 to 85 during that time.

McAuliffe said the company expects sales of at least $160 million this year.

The investment by BelHealth will expand opportunities for Apothecary by Design to pursue new business nationally in specialty pharmacy services, the fastest-growing sector of the pharmacy industry, McAuliffe said. It also is expected to accelerate the pharmacy’s growth by increasing resources for staffing, regulatory and technological expertise, and improvements to its facilities in Portland, he said.

MAINE INSTITUTIONS AIDED GROWTH

Three of Apothecary by Design’s five co-founders remain in senior management positions: McAuliffe as CEO, Tom Madden as president and Catherine Cloudman as chief financial officer. Co-founder Joe Lorello remains a partner and shareholder, while co-founder Greg Boucouvalas remains an employee, McAuliffe said.

The company would not have been able to reach the size and strength that made it an attractive acquisition target without financial help from Maine institutions, including the Finance Authority of Maine and Bangor Savings Bank, McAuliffe said. FAME’s loan-guarantee program, and the willingness of Bangor Savings to take a chance on financing a fast-growing startup, made all the difference, he said.

“In our case, the program absolutely worked and was a critical part of our growth,” McAuliffe said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 10:52 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 22 to clarify Greg Boucouvalas’ status with the company.