My latest blog post for Ministers of Design
A little more than a week ago, the bearded beekeeper and co-founder of Burt’s Bees, Burt Shavitz, passed away. “Burt Shavitz, our co-founder and namesake, has left for greener fields and wilder woods,” the company wrote.
It all started with candles. Shavitz had a honey-making business in Maine when he teamed up with Roxanne Quimby in 1984, who used his leftover beeswax to make candles that she sold at a craft fair.
The candles were a hit — they made $200 at their first fair and $20,000 after a year, according to the company. The pair launched a business together, soon expanding to personal care products like lip balms and soaps.
The brand’s signature and best-selling product, its beeswax balm, was introduced in 1991.
Hold on…how did a bee-loving, business-hating Maine hippie start one of the most beloved cosmetics brands? Burt Shavitz was not interested in lip balm or moisturizer and definitely not big business. His passions were bees, his golden retrievers, nature…
In the documentary Burt’s Buzz, Shavitz says, “There was no company. My bees were the company. My truck was the company. My chainsaw was the company.”
Then in the summer of 1984, he gave a hitchhiker named Roxanne Quimby a ride. What followed…well, a history of thumbs up and thumbs down. Quimby essentially created the business.
Shavitz and Quimby eventually parted ways and not happily, after the business moved from Maine to North Carolina and grew exponentially. In 1999, she bought him out for $130,000, according to The New Yorker. She later sold most of her share to a private equity firm for more than $140 million. She reportedly gave Shavitz $4 million. “If Mr. Shavitz had held onto the stake he traded to Quimby for $130,000, it would have been worth about $59 million,” the New York Times wrote in 2008.
Burt’s Bees was sold again to the Clorox Company for nearly a billion dollars in 2007. Today, the products are sold in over 50 countries. Shavitz was compensated for the use of his image on the label, and he was paid to make special appearances to promote the brand.
“In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything. Money is nothing really worth squabbling about. This is what puts people six feet under. You know, I don’t need it.”
In his typically wry way, he commented on the company takeover, “Except for the fact that they’re from Clorox, they’re nice people.”
The reluctant face of Burt’s Bees was an intensely private man: “A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.”
And this is the story of Burt, who made sharing the hard work of his bee friends some of his beeswax.