Toronto Film Festival 2013

09.11.13

Burt’s Bees Co-Founder Burt Shavitz on the Doc ‘Burt’s Buzz,’ and Losing Millions

Burt Shavitz, the eccentric co-founder of the personal-care-products company Burt’s Bees, is given the documentary treatment in ‘Burt’s Buzz.’ Director Jody Shapiro and Shavitz sat down with Marlow Stern at TIFF to discuss Burt’s journey, and how he was screwed out of the company fortune.

You’ve seen Burt Shavitz before. The bounteous beard, the tilted cap, the soulful eyes. Products bearing his iconic image have graced the lips, hair, and faces of millions of men and women across the world. But the septuagenarian co-founder of Burt’s Bees, the ecofriendly personal care products company, isn’t too keen on seeing you.

“A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere,” he says.

Burt is a paragon of rusticism. He spends his days shacked up in a 400-square-foot converted turkey coop in the backwoods of Maine. He doesn’t own a television and, ever since his water heater broke years ago, heats water on a wood stove. Now, the accidental entrepreneur is getting the documentary treatment in Jody Shapiro’s film Burt’s Buzz, which made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The film traces Burt’s journey from wayward hippie-news photographer in the ’60s to co-founder of a multimillion dollar company, and his current gig as brand ambassador for the company he was forced out of.

“He’s like Colonel Sanders, you know?” says his assistant, Trevor, in the film. “And to him, he just does not understand that.”

Shapiro met Burt through Isabella Rossellini, who had starred in a film he produced for Guy Maddin, The Saddest Music in the World, as well as the Sundance Channel series Green Porno—about the sex lives of insects. When Burt’s Bees hired the actress for a series of PSAs about the nature of bees, with Rossellini playing the role of Burt, she sought his help. Burt and Shapiro immediately bonded over their love of vintage motorcycles.

“I started shooting these raw interviews with Burt, just for the company, and kept on thinking he had such a fascinating story beyond just the company,” says Shapiro. “And when I learned he was doing a promotional tour for Burt’s Bees in Taiwan, I thought, there’s the movie.”

Shapiro traveled back and forth to Maine to visit Burt and shoot interviews for about a year beginning in January 2011. Interviewing Burt is no simple task, since his mind tends to wander—a byproduct of age and, perhaps, his history of psychedelic drug use. The total filmmaking process, including editing, took him 18 months.

Burt was born in Great Neck, New York. Since following in his father’s footsteps as a factory worker was of no interest to him, Burt took to photography, snapping pictures of “bums on the Bowery,” as he puts it. He was eventually hired as a staff photographer for a Jewish weekly and then, after they purchased some of his photographs, acquired a press pass for Time. He got work as a freelancer for publications like The New York Times and Life, photographing anti-war rallies, pollution, and popular figures of the period like Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Allen Ginsberg. But when the television started to become popular, Burt realized that there was no longer much of a market for his photos.

“I saw the handwriting on the wall and decided it was the right time to leave,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it was a good time to be in New York back then. Anything went. Anything. But the good time was over.”

In 1970, Burt threw his mattress in his Volkswagen van and, along with a few buddies, drove upstate to the High Falls, New York, area. After a series of heavy rainstorms, Burt decided to drive around and survey the damage. He stumbled upon a swarm of bees on a fencepost.

“She accused me of sexual harassment and went completely berserk.”

“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,” Burt recalls. “So, there was this fencepost, and I said, ‘My lord, this is an act of God! I can’t turn this down.’”

Burt called on his beekeeper pal, who scooped up the bees from the fencepost with his bare hands, and dumped them into a hive. They plugged all the openings with torn underwear, and took the booty back to his home in Alligerville, New York. Before long, he had amassed 26 beehives, dripping with honey.

“I realized I had it made because you don’t have to destroy anything to get honey. You can just use the same things over and over again, put it in a quart canning jar, and you’ve got $12,” he says.

When his grandfather died, he left Burt a small sum of money, which the beekeeper used to purchase a plot of land in rural Maine. He began selling his jars of honey out of his van on the side of the road, and eventually, at the local general store.

One day in 1984, he was cruising around in his van when he came across a woman hitchhiking on the side of the road in Dexter, Maine. The lady was Roxanne Quimby, a down-on-her-luck waitress and single mother, and before long, the two were both lovers and business partners. With Burt’s resources and Quimby’s business acumen, their makeshift enterprise started to grow. Quimby crafted decorative jars for the honey—bearing a logo of Burt’s grizzled face—and, at Burt’s behest, used beeswax he’d been collecting over the years to produce wax candles. Before long, they began making shoe polish and, the big moneymaker: lip balm. They introduced the lip balm, a combination of beeswax and sweet almond oil, in 1991. When they became incorporated that year, Quimby owned two thirds of the company, while Burt owned one third.

By 1993, their company had racked up $3 million in sales and, sensing a higher demand, Quimby decided to move the company’s headquarters out of Maine and into Durham, North Carolina. While Quimby headed product development, which switched from homemade goods to factory-produced ones, Burt traveled up and down the East Coast managing all the retail stores.

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According to the film—and Burt—he began an affair with a college-age girl who worked at one of the retail stores. When Quimby found out, she was irate.

“She accused me of sexual harassment and went completely berserk,” he says. “She consulted a lawyer and put the paper on a desk and said, ‘There! Take it or leave it!” I had no one to turn to for guidance, so I signed it. I went one way and she went another."

While exact figures of the settlement aren’t available, a report in The New York Times claims that in 1999, when the two parted ways, Burt received a home and about 50 acres of property worth an estimated $130,000 for his one-third share in Burt’s Bees.

By 2001, retail sales of Burt’s Bees had reached upward of $60 million, and in 2004, Quimby sold 80 percent of the company to the private-equity firm AEA Investors for $173 million. She retained 20 percent of the company, which only continued to grow. According to The New York Times, Burt made a fuss over the deal, and Quimby agreed to pay him an additional $4 million. By 2006, Burt’s Bees’ retail sales had reached $250 million, and the following year, the Clorox Company acquired Burt’s Bees for $925 million.

Though he describes his and Quimby’s current status as “a zero relationship,” Burt doesn’t seem all that bitter over the hundreds of millions he lost out on.

“What do I need it for, millions of dollars?” he asks. “It just sounds like problems with the IRS to me.”

Today, Burt’s Bees produces more than 120 skin and hair products and is valued at over $1 billion. Burt doesn’t have any equity in Burt’s Bees, but he’s paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to his name and image. He’s also compensated for various promotional tours for the brand, taking him to places like Taiwan. When he arrived there, the disheveled outdoorsman was greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans.

“They had bands playing music, everyone was cheering, and I was given a big pot of flowers,” he says, unleashing a rare smile. “It was crazy.”