Inside The Life Of Eccentric Burt’s Bees Founder, Burt Shavitz

An eco-hero and reputed loose cannon, Burt’s Bees co-founder Burt Shavitz leads a hermit’s life. Wing Sze Tang speaks to the eccentric on the eve of a revealing documentary

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Burt-Shavitz

The Bee Whisperer, Burt Shavitz

Burt Shavitz prefers to be left alone: It’s a wonder I can reach him at all—for 15 years, he had no phone, electricity or running water. The septuagenarian co-founder of Burt’s Bees dwells in a tiny cabin in remote Maine—just as he did in the ’80s, before he rang up a fortune for the brand that bears his name. Even today he forgoes such creature comforts as a washing machine or TV. “I get four channels—spring, summer, fall, winter—out the window. I see eagles and hawks and crows, and I howl with coyotes,” he tells me.

Long before “natural” became a consumer craze and a nebulous marketing buzzword, Burt’s pioneered the niche. Yet Shavitz, the beauty industry’s kookiest personality, has remained a media-shy mystery—known by most as just the abundantly bearded, logoed face peering from the company packaging. Now, that’s about to change, as a new documentary, directed by Toronto filmmaker Jody Shapiro, shines a light on his stranger-than-fiction life. It’s a plot full of improbable twists, riveting characters, a love story that ended in an ice-cold shoulder—and success beyond Shavitz’s wildest dreams.

His logoed doppelgänger on a tin of Burt's Bees Hand Salve

His logoed doppelgänger on a tin of Burt’s Bees Hand Salve

Shapiro had collaborated with Isabella Rossellini on her cult-hit Sundance Channel series, Green Porno— short films on the sex lives of animals and bugs. So when Burt’s Bees approached the actress to make quirky PSAs on the wonders of bees (see them at burtsbees.ca/wildforbees.html), she enlisted Shapiro’s help. He flew down with his own camera, and the seed of a doc idea sprouting.

“I thought, probably like everybody else, he must be loaded. Little did I know it’s almost the exact opposite,” says Shapiro. “Then I started getting the stories: He’s a recluse. He wants to be alone. He rambles for hours on end. He hates journalists. He hates PR…” But the cautionary tales only heightened his curiosity. After he and Shavitz bonded over a love of vintage motorcycles, his subject relaxed a little and pulled out a water-damaged, dust-covered cardboard box. It was something that one of his few confidants, his long-time caretaker, didn’t even know existed. Inside was an impressive cache of photographs that Shavitz had snapped in his hometown of New York in the ’60s and ’70s as a young photojournalist, the job he pursued after serving two years in the U.S. army.

Shavitz as a young man

Shavitz as a young man

His portrait of Malcolm X

His portrait of Malcolm X; Photo by Getty Images

Shavitz's shot of the Statue of Liberty rising from trash helped stoke the public's eco-awareness

Shavitz’s shot of the Statue of Liberty rising from trash helped stoke the public’s eco-awareness

“He was around the movers and shakers of his time,” says Shapiro. Freelancing for publications such as The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, Shavitz took portraits of Malcolm X and Allen Ginsberg. His shot of the Statue of Liberty emerging from a garbage pile, published in Life magazine, is credited with galvanizing the public’s eco-conscious- ness. Realizing there was more history to Shavitz than meets the eye, Shapiro got carte blanche from Burt’s Bees to dig. (He’s preparing to submit his as-yet-untitled doc to film festivals.)

Shavitz is puzzled to find someone so keen on chronicling his life. “It’s a little beyond my comprehension, why all this big deal over the fact that I’m just who I always was and always wanted to be,” he demurs when I call. On most days, when he’s not attending to his beloved golden retrievers, he spends hours laying out birdseed or staring at the sky.

He’s existed off the grid since 1970, when he abandoned the hustle of New York, packed a mattress into a Volkswagen and dropped out of society to camp in the woods upstate. “What happened was the magazine business died when television came in, because television was instant, and most Americans want instant,” he says, in his slippery-fish manner of moving from topic to topic. “There was nothing left in New York for me, or anywhere, I presumed.”

He worked odd jobs, and one day, while going to collect firewood, he encountered a buzzing swarm. “When I saw those bees on that fence post, I said, ‘That’s gotta be an act of God.’ It was like a minor miracle,” recalls Shavitz, who had met a beekeeper the year before and already had an empty hive. He sought help from an elderly beekeeper (his “guru”), who scooped the insects—with bare hands—into the hive. That was enough to convince Shavitz he could do it, too.

Over time, he became a go-to guy for removing unwanted bees from properties around town. He called his operation Burt’s Bees. Soon he had amassed 26 hives, a source of valuable honey, beeswax and pollen. For someone after a self-sufficient way to live off the land, it was perfect. When he inherited some money from his grandfather, Shavitz set his sights on buying a modest plot in Maine, where he’d summered as a kid. There, he moved into a renovated 8 x 8 turkey coop and peddled gallons of honey in pickle jars from his truck, earning a few thousand dollars a year.

“He’s not somebody who ever wanted to change the world. In a weird way he’s had this Forrest Gump-ian existence,” observes Shapiro. Shavitz may well have lived out his years in happy anonymity if serendipity hadn’t thrown a wrench in his plans. One day, in 1984, he gave a ride to a hitchhiker—an anti-capitalist artist-turned-waitress, single mom and fellow off-the-gridder named Roxanne Quimby. “He fascinated me because he was such a freak—I am very attracted to the oddballs of the world,” she told writer David Vinjamuri in the book Accidental Branding. (Quimby declined to be interviewed for this story.)

It was the start of a decade-long romance. And while Shavitz is the face of Burt’s Bees, Quimby is often credited as the business brains. She switched the honey into small, prettified jars (more cash for less product) and began to hand-make beeswax candles. Both were a hit at craft fairs, and the latter caught the eye of New York shop Zona, which ordered candles by the hundreds.

Using beeswax recipes from 19th-century almanacs, Quimby whipped up shoe polish, stove polish and— the blockbuster that would turn the company into a personal-care bigwig—lip balm. “It’s the same thing as furniture polish,” she explained in Accidental Branding. “It just has peppermint in it instead of lavender.”

By the early ’90s they had a hodgepodge enterprise— making everything from stovetop-brewed perfumes to dog bones—and $3 million in sales. Quimby seemed to relish steering the ship, but corporate demands interested Shavitz less and less. They moved the company HQ to spacious digs in North Carolina (a state with better tax rates), and ditched their handcrafted goods in favour of money-makers that could be auto-manufactured—including the lip balm, still the top-seller today.

When Shavitz retired, in 1999, Quimby bought out his part of the company in exchange for a house. It cost just $130,000, reported The New York Times, noting that post-deal Shavitz had “$4 million or so to his name.”

The business stayed on a roll, with revenues climbing to $60 million by 2003. But Quimby had other blue-sky ambitions—namely, to create America’s newest national park—so she plotted an exit strategy that would give her the funds to scoop up land. (Today, she has 74,000 acres she’s trying to designate as Maine Woods National Park.) She found a suitor in the private equity firm AEA Investors, which snapped up an 80 percent stake in Burt’s for about $150 million. Then, to the surprise and consternation of some, the firm turned around and sold the eco-beauty brand in 2007 to a conglomerate best known for bleach, Clorox Corp.—for $925 million.

The renovated turkey coop Shavitz called home

The renovated turkey coop Shavitz called home

The deal ultimately doubled Quimby’s payday, but Shavitz didn’t reap that windfall. When I ask if they remain friendly, he offers one of his briefest answers: “I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in, I don’t know how many years.” Shapiro, who explores the rift between the two co-founders in his film, tells me, “It’s a he-said, she-said scenario. It’s filled with some hurt and regret.” The bad blood is not about the dollar figure, Shapiro theorizes. “He couldn’t care less about that. It wouldn’t change his life anyway. But I think the money represents something to him. In his eyes he’s owed more.”

I prod Shavitz: Is he surprised by how Burt’s has changed since its early days? “Not really. I mean, if you’re producing something in your kitchen, sooner or later somebody’s going to steal from you, and what are you going to do about it?” he says in his characteristically opaque way. “I’m not saying anybody stole anything, but it was always a possibility and there’s a lot of wannabes out there who think they’re selling ‘natural.’”

Isabella Rossellini dressed as Shavitz for bee-related PSAs

Isabella Rossellini dressed as Shavitz for bee-related PSAs

Many Burt’s Bees formulas are “as old as Cleopatra,” Shavitz insists. Although the range has expanded to more than 120 skin and hair care products, half of them are 100 percent natural, and altogether they average 99 percent natural. He doesn’t speak ill of Clorox taking over. “It’s been sold twice, so at every change, there’s a change,” he says, “but if there were radical changes, whoever just put a lot of money for Burt’s Bees would be cutting off their nose to spite their face.”

Shavitz is still contracted to do occasional promotional work for the brand, raising awareness for the bee crisis and touring the globe for shopper meet-and-greets, though it’s hard to envision him faking a suit-wearing, jargon-spouting corporate persona. He’s not asked to deviate from his T-shirt-and-khaki comfort zone. But while you may expect him to be anti–“The Man,” he’s a shameless salesman, Shapiro realized after shooting his documentary. “He’s full of really interesting contrasts,” he says. “This is a guy who lives in a tiny little cabin, but when he does his promotional stuff for Burt’s Bees, he insists on staying at the W hotel.” At home in Maine, Shavitz is treated like any other local, but in Taiwan—surprisingly, the brand’s fastest-growing market—he’s a rock star–level celebrity greeted by screaming fans.

Still, Shavitz insists Burt’s massive success hasn’t transformed his life, which he seems to lead exactly how he wants it. “I’ve always had enough. I never starved to death, and I never went without a meal. I served in the army and went to Germany and slept in snowbanks, and walked 100 miles in the day carrying an 80-pound pack. What was it that I needed?” he philosophizes. “My beekeeping produced enough cash that I could maintain my vehicles and pay my land taxes. What do I need? Nothing. No wife, no children, no TV set, no washing machine. All the pins sort of fell into place my entire life.”

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Burt’s Bees Branches into cosmetics with subtly tinted balms and glosses; Photos by Ivan Engler

The Little Lippy That Could

Can you get hooked on lip balm? Judging by the tins and tubes of Burt’s classic beeswax version zipping off shelves (16 million are sold a year), it seems so. Our next habit: new lip tints with nourishing extras. An anti-glam go-to for starlets off-duty (Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, Leighton Meester), and now available in more shades, the 100 percent natural Tinted Lip Balms, $8, soften with coconut oil, creamy shea butter and botanical waxes. And the 100 percent natural Lip Shines and Glosses, $10-$13, are fancied up with sunflower seed oil, alongside pigments from minerals, not synthetic dyes.

Rooftop hives at U of T's new college

Rooftop hives at U of T’s new college

Local Buzz: With honeybees in peril, our country takes action

As just one of its eco-initiatives, Burt’s Bees teamed up with the non-profit Pollinator Partnership to set up the Honey Bee Health Improvement Project, a task force for research. (This June, watch for a repeat collab with Canadian designer Jenny Bird; all proceeds for her bee-charm bracelet will go to the charity.)

Alarm bells have been sounding since 2006, when some U.S. beekeepers noticed that up to 90 percent of their honeybee hives were perishing of unknown causes. (Suspected culprits include malnutrition, pesticides and stress.) The phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder, has not been officially observed in Canada—yet. But it’s not the only threat: About half of our approximately 45 native bee species show signs of decline, says Sheila Colla, pollinator project leader at Wildlife Preservation Canada. “In some cases, species like the rusty-patched bumblebee went from being very common [in southern Ontario] to very rare in just a few decades,” she notes. Click savethebumblebees.com for more.)

Luckily, Canada is home to innovative bee supporters. In 2008, after receiving a hive from the Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative, the Fairmont Royal York became the first hotel in the world to open a rooftop apiary. The program provides bugs to pollinate nearby flora, plus ultra-local honey for their chefs. You can now find colonies atop the University of Toronto’s New College (its jars of honey are sold at local markets), and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing arts in Toronto. and Fairmont continues to spread the love— today, their hotels operate 21 apiaries worldwide.

One comment on “Inside The Life Of Eccentric Burt’s Bees Founder, Burt Shavitz

  1. I only got to read half of this at the salon and was *dying* to get home to read the rest of this article. Thank you so much for a really interesting article about Burt Shavitz, the recluse and the icon. Also, great to see FLARE raise awareness of the decline of bee populations and give people information on what they can do about it!

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