Burt Shavitz — the unabashedly crotchety, free-spirited co-founder of Burt’s Bees whose unruly beard perfectly positioned the “simple, wholesome” products now sold globally by Clorox — died yesterday in Bangor, Maine, of respiratory complications. He was 80.
“Shavitz was a hippie making a living by selling honey when his life was altered by a chance encounter with a hitchhiking Roxanne Quimby. She was a single mother and a back-to-the-lander who impressed Shavitz with her ingenuity and self-sufficiency,” writes the AP’s David Sharp. “In the 1980s she began making products from his beeswax, and they became partners.”
In a story published last week, Emily Becker compiled “12 Things You Didn’t Know About Burt of Burt’s Bees,” including some telling snippets about life before birds, bees and Quimby came along.
Shavitz was born in Great Neck, N.Y., to “supportive” parents who owned a graphic arts business. As a boy, Becker writes, he took a 100-mile bike trip from his home to Montauk Point at the tip of Long Island, sleeping in jails along the way following his mother’s suggestion. He later served in the Army, then eschewed taking over the family business to become a photographer for Time and Life magazines, where he “captured images of the rallies, protests, and turmoil of New York in the 1960s.”
In 1970, he departed for the north country — first upstate New York and later Maine, where he did odd jobs before buying a beehive and being given some equipment by a local.
A documentary about Shavitz, “Burt’s Buzz,” was released in 2013. “There was no company. My bees were the company. My truck was my company. My chainsaw was my company,” he says in the trailer.
After the fateful ride with him, Quimby “began working with Shavitz, learning beekeeping and how to make beeswax candles,” writes Abigail Curtis for the Bangor Daily News. “According to the documentary, Quimby had the idea of using the beeswax that Shavitz had saved to make lip balm and other products.”
“The pair made $200 at their first craft fair selling the candles, and within a year, pulled in $20,000, according to a company timeline. Soon, they started making all kinds of other products — featuring Shavitz's face and beard on the labels — including Burt's Bees iconic beeswax lip balm,” reports CNN Money’s Sophia Yan.
“The two together founded Burt’s Bees, a company whose all-natural products and homespun marketing appealed to hippies, homemakers and the well-heeled alike,” Curtis writes. “They moved the company headquarters from Maine to North Carolina in 1994, and Quimby bought out Shavitz in the late 1990s, not without controversy and for a sum of less than $1 million, reportedly. She sold the company to Clorox Co. in 2007 for $913 million, reportedly making more than $300 million in the deal.”
In fact, Shavitz “has said he was forced out after having an affair with an employee,” according to the AP’s Sharp.
“Burt was an enigma; my mentor and my muse,” Quimby emailed the AP. “I am deeply saddened.”
“Shavitz didn’t seem to mind missing out on 93% of a windfall,” observes Justin Wm. Moyer in the Washington Post.
“In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything,” he told filmmaker Jody Shapiro in “Burt’s Buzz.” “Money is nothing really worth squabbling about. This is what puts people six feet under. You know, I don’t need it.”
Writes Moyer: “This critique extended to corporate culture: ‘I had no desire to be a upward-mobile rising yuppie with a trophy wife, a trophy house, a trophy car,’” he said.
“I’ve got everything I need,” he told the New Yorker’s Tad Friend last year. “A nice piece of land with hawks and owls and incredible sunsets, and the good will of my neighbors.”
“Let us honor his legacy through a mutual respect for the natural wonders that give us so much,” writes Joshua Marriage, editor in chief of Beardspo, about his “fellow beardsman” on the site celebrating the “hirsute of happiness.”
“Burt Shavitz, our co-founder and namesake, has left for greener fields and wilder woods…,” says a statement on the company’s webpage beneath a picture of him in a railroader’s cap. “If you would like to share stories, thoughts, or condolences, please email them to email@example.com or share on social with #BurtLivesOn.
“A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere,” Shavitz says at the end of the trailer for “Burt’s Buzz.” RIP.