Women Who Launch: Burt’s Bees


We have all heard of Burt’s Bees. An American brand that prides itself as an earth friendly company making natural personal care, health, beauty and personal hygiene products.

But who is Burt and his bees?

A story of two unemployed people driven by desperation who met over a tub of honey. Together, they would start a business out of 30 bee hives and a honey house. For the next 20 years, this bee business has cash tills ringing all around the world in excess of $250 million dollars.

This is the story of Roxanne Quimby and Burt Shavitz.

Roxanne Quimby was a graduate from an art school in San Francisco and an aspiring artist. She desired a low cost of living life to focus on her painting and sell her work. At 24 years-old, Roxanne and her then-boyfriend settled in a small mill town of Bangor, Maine, and made it home. In 1978, Roxanne gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl. Not long after that, her boyfriend and father of the twins left the family, leaving her as a single parent.

It was the year 1984. Times were tough and unemployment was high. She was let go of three part-time waitressing jobs. This left her struggling as a flea market vendor selling junk yard sale goods. One day, she needed to buy honey. This had Roxanne stop on the roadside at the tailgate of a pickup truck. It was there that she met Burt Shavitz.

Burt Shavitz was a local beekeeper and photographer from Maine. He was also unemployed and lived off the earnings from the quarts of honey he sold out of the back of his pick-up truck every weekend. He made just enough to get by paying for his property tax and gas for his pick-up. Roxanne, attracted by Burt’s good looks (as she describes it), made friends with Burt and started to volunteer her help with the bees. It did not take long before Roxanne noticed that Burt had a great amount of unused beeswax collected and stored away.

Burt offered Roxanne to make candles out of the beeswax and sell it at a school arts and crafts fair. For $3 a pair, they made a whopping $200 at the end of the day. This was more than what Roxanne was making in a week! She knew she was on to something. She went home, rampaged through her house and found an old book of recipes that uses beeswax. In there, she discovered the recipe, for what would be now known as Burt’s Bee’s best-selling product, lip balm.

Inspired by Burt who stenciled his hives as ‘Burt’s Bees’, she took on that name and started labeling her products as ‘Burt’s Bees’. She thought it funny that someone would own a bee. But that name very soon became the talk of the town. If people did not buy the product, they were definitely talking about its name.

With extremely limited resources and an increasingly cramped living/working space, a friend offered Roxanne his abandoned one-room schoolhouse for $150 a year rental, a cost enough to cover his fire insurance for the place. There, with no running water or electricity, Roxanne made her lip balms over a gas range by the light of a kerosene lamp. Quimby developed every element of the business, every product and package. It became her self-expression, her creative outlet. She also drew a picture of a heavily bearded Burt on the label. This created more talk which generated more sales.

Ten years later, Rosanne bought Burt out of the business & moved away from Maine (where taxes were high and accessibility to the consumer market was low). With $3 million dollars she built a manufacturing plant in North Carolina. It is here that Burt’s Bees continued to focus on the ‘home-made’ natural theme for their products & created over 50 personal care product lines.

By 2007, Burt’s Bees has an operating revenue of over $250 million dollars, has over 150 natural care product lines and six offices all over the world. In that same year, they were acquired by Clorox Company for a reported sum of USD$950 million. Of which, 20% of the sale price went to Roxanne Quimby (USD$190 million).

Today, Roxanne owns many homes and is a resident of Maine (yes, she moved back!) where she leads a number of philanthropic organizations.One thing she did with her new found fortune was to purchase over 120,000 acres of forested land in Maine to support her conservation advocacy. She is now proposing to donate 70,000 acres of her land as the new Maine Woods National Park, and an additional 30,000 acres to be converted to a state park allowing activities like hunting and snowmobiling.

Burt, on the other hand, was paid out his share of the business by Roxanne and was completely out of the business by 1999. He still lives in a cabin in Maine. And continues to get paid an undisclosed amount every year for using his name and image on its products. Same old Burt as Roxanne would say.


How She Did It?

Interview quotes by Roxanne Quimby

On her drive. I was so incredibly driven by necessity and hardship to create a living for myself and the people I employed.A special report on BusinessWeek.com,  Jan 16, 2007, by Stacy Perman

On her biggest lesson.“I learned how to be a good negotiator and get to yes, so that a project could move forward instead of disintegrating into disagreement. Everybody has to win. I believe that.” A special report on BusinessWeek.com,  Jan 16, 2007, by Stacy PermanOn success.Success is just getting up one more time than you fall. It doesn’t come from one brilliant idea, but from a bunch of small decision.A feature story on INC.com, Jan 1, 2004, by Susan Donovan

On what keeps her going. I live a simple lifestyle; rice and beans and the little Maine town I live in is fine. I’m in it for the challenge; it’s about the game. The money is just kind of the score. I’m still very curious about how far I can push this. A feature story on INC.com, Jan 1, 2004, by Susan Donovan 

On her working model. Let the consumer tell you what they want. Try to identify an unspoken need and then let the consumer ‘discover’ the products. You need to stay ahead of them.A feature story of Successful Living magazine, Spring 2009, by Brendan Harrington.

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  • Women Who Launch interviews, click here.
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