Short Story of the Day: Burt’s Bees

While the Burt’s Bees brand may be a common household name today, the story of how it came to success is certainly not. In the 1970’s, Burt Shavitz was in his early thirties and lived the city lifestyle as a photographer in Manhattan, far removed from the peace of nature. All was going well until one day, he came to a stark realisation. Upon taking a picture of an elderly woman who was bound to her apartment, he understood that he could’ve been staring at a reflection of his older self. Spooked by the fear of being trapped inside an apartment all day, Burt quickly quit his job at Time and Life Magazines and headed to Maine to pursue a more gratifying life. 

“I knew that that would be me, 90 years old and unable to go outside, if I didn’t get the hell out.”

When he arrived to his 400 sq. ft. Turkey coup with no running water or power, he turned to the hippie lifestyle. After settling in, Burt decided to sell his bees’ honey to help generate some cash. Eventually, he became famous among the locals for selling honey out of the bed of his pickup truck. To deter theft, he marked each of his bee boxes, “Burt’s Bees.” 

Although Burt found success selling honey, he didn’t know what to do with the leftover beeswax. He decided to save it, rather than throw it away, in case he thought of another use.

One day, while Burt was driving, he noticed a hitchhiker on the side of the road and decided to give her a ride. He didn’t know it at the time, but that girl, Roxanne Quimby, would become his future soulmate and business partner. Impressed by her ingenuity and self-sufficiency, Burt thought he could impress her with his old beekeeping book filled his beeswax recipes. Roxanne quickly saw opportunity with his left over beeswax, and together, they began to sell candles in addition to honey. 

Shortly after, business skyrocketed. They entered themselves into a junior high crafts fair and made $200; one year later, their sales had grown to over $20,000. Though they were clearly onto something, the two had opposing goals. For Roxanne, she wanted to live the ‘American Dream’ by growing the venture to a large as she could. Unlike Roxanne’s large ambitions, Burt was humbled by their current success. He found the rush of the corporate life to be antithetical to the reason he migrated to Maine-Burt had no intention of living the CEO lifestyle. 

As the business grew in size, so did the strain on their relationship. When the company moved south to North Carolina, away from the familiarity of the Maine woods, their relationship was at a weak point. Soon after, Burt was discovered to be having an affair with one of the staff and was divorced by Roxanne. Per the divorce settlements, Burt was left with nothing but some cash and a plot of land in Maine to live out the rest of his days. 

Under Quimby’s supervision, the company was able to grow to an impressive size before being acquired by The Clorox Company in 2007 for $925 million. Although Burt left the company before he was able to share in the success of his bees, Quimby decided to give him $4 million. For Burt, however, capital gain was already behind him. “In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything. Land is positively everything, and money is nothing really worth squabbling about. This is what puts people six feet under.”

In retrospect, Burt had no feelings of regret after leaving the company. “I had no desire to be an upward-mobile-rising yuppie with a trophy wife, a trophy house, a trophy car. I wasn’t looking for any of those things. I already had what I wanted… No one has ever accused me of being ambitious.” 

Today, Burt’s Bees has expanded their product line beyond mint flavored lip balms to other natural cosmetics. But in all their success, they have never strayed from the ‘down to Earth’ ethos established by Burt back in Maine.