The man whose bearded visage adorns one of America’s best known natural brands — and the co-founder of a multimillion-dollar company who missed out on a large part of its good fortune — is gone. Burt Shavitz, the face of Burt’s Bees, has died at 80.
“Burt Shavitz, our co-founder and namesake, has left for greener fields and wilder woods,” the company said in a statement posted to its Web site. “We remember him as a bearded, free-spirited Maine man, a beekeeper, a wisecracker, a lover of golden retrievers and his land. Above all, he taught us to never lose sight of our relationship with nature. Thanks for everything, Burt. You will live in our hearts forever.”
Though Shavitz may live in the hearts of Burt’s Bees forever, it hasn’t been his company in a long time. Shavitz was pushed out 15 years after Burt’s Bees founding for, he said, having an affair with an employee. Burt’s Bees was sold in 2007 to Clorox for more than $900 million, making Shavitz akin to the McDonald brothers — the name of a small-town product mostly cut out of its enormous success.
Born in Great Neck, N.Y., in 1935, Shavitz was a news photographer turned free spirit who came upon his first bees swarming around a fencepost after a rainstorm. He credited the Almighty.
“The year before, a guy that I’d been buying honey from, who was a beekeeper, had given me everything I needed to be a beekeeper except the bees — a hive, a mask, gloves, a smoker, a hive tool, everything,” Shavitz said. “So, there was this fencepost, and I said, ‘My lord, this is an act of God! I can’t turn this down.’”
After inheriting a bit of money, Shavitz relocated to Maine, where he met his future business partner — and rival. Here’s the version of the fateful encounter posted to the company’s Web site:
It was the summer of ’84, and Maine artist Roxanne Quimby was thumbing a ride home (back when you could still do that sort of thing). Eventually a bright yellow Datsun pickup truck pulled over, and Roxanne instantly recognized Burt Shavitz, a local fella whose beard was almost as well-known as his roadside honey stand. Burt and Roxanne hit it off, and before long, Roxanne was making candles with unused wax from Burt’s beehives. They made $200 at their first craft fair; within a year, they’d make $20,000. Pretty auspicious beginning – but just the beginning, all the same.
However, Shavitz and Quimby, a single mother, weren’t just business partners, but lovers. In interviews, Shavitz has offered comments about their relationship that seem mystical at best and bitter at worst.
“She was man-hungry,” he said last year, “and she and I, by spells, fed the hunger.”
Though Shavitz has made comments about an affair, it’s not clear what went wrong between Quimby and the man with the beard. Their relationship was evidently strained by the company’s move from Maine to North Carolina in the 1990s; Shavitz quickly made tracks back to his New England home, and Quimby bought him out in 1999.
Given the eventual sale of Burt’s Bees to a Fortune 500 company for nearly $1 billion, Quimby may have gotten the deal of the century: For his piece of Burt’s Bees, Burt got a house in Maine worth $130,000.
Burt’s Bees, like Ben & Jerry’s, is a hippie-ish, socially responsible-ish brand owned since 2008 by a large corporation — and, before that, by a private equity firm. But in Shavitz’s case, he didn’t get a big corporate paycheck.
“If Mr. Shavitz had held onto the stake he traded to Ms. Quimby for $130,000, it would have been worth about $59 million,” the New York Times wrote in 2008.
“Everyone associated with the company was treated fairly, and in some cases very generously, upon the sale of the company and my departure as CEO,” Quimby said last year. “And that, of course, includes Burt.”
Luckily, Shavitz didn’t seem to mind missing out on 93 percent of a windfall.
“In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything,” he told a filmmaker for the 2013 documentary “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.”
This critique extended to corporate culture: “I had no desire to be an upward-mobile rising yuppie with a trophy wife, a trophy house, a trophy car,” he said.
Sounds just like what a guy who sells honey by the side of the road in Maine might say. But at other times, Shavitz could be quite sharp-tongued when discussing his former partner.
He reserved some Woody Allen-esque zingers for the corporation that bought the company that bears his name.
“Except for the fact that they’re from Clorox, they’re nice people,” he said.
Though he jabbed at Clorox, Shavitz accepted an undisclosed sum to act as the company’s “brand ambassador,” as the Daily Beast put it. He didn’t seem to relish the role.
“As a celebrity of sorts, I’m contractually obligated not to say ‘Buzz off,'” he said in “Burt’s Buzz,” which features images of him gamely handing out free samples. “… A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.”
A New Yorker profile written on the occasion of the release of “Burt’s Buzz” perhaps perfectly captured the many contradictions Shavitz seemed to embody.
“The seventy-nine-year-old hippie from Parkman, Maine, has a cross-grained disposition, a Civil War beard, and manifestly unmoisturized skin,” Tad Friend wrote. “When asked if he uses any Burt’s products, he said, ‘No.’ Then, perhaps recalling his corporate obligations, he added, ‘Well, as needed.'”
Burt’s Bees statement after Shavitz’s death called him “a complex man” who “defines this brand in immeasurable small and deep ways that we continue to discover.” Quimby’s words of farewell paid tribute to that complexity.
“Burt was an enigma; my mentor and my muse,” she told the Associated Press in an e-mail. “I am deeply saddened.”