In 1984, Burt Shavitz was a reclusive beekeeper selling honey from the back of his truck when his life took an unexpected turn.
He picked up a hitchhiker on a Maine roadside who became his partner in romance and business. Together they turned beeswax into a brand of lip balm, soaps, lotions and other personal care products that would one day gain international appeal with its back-to-nature ethos.
Shavitz, whose bearded visage and rustic lifestyle became key to the unlikely success of natural beauty care giant Burt's Bees, died Sunday in Bangor, Maine, of respiratory complications, a company spokeswoman said. He was 80.
FOR THE RECORD:
Burt Shavitz obituary: In the July 7 California section, the obituary of Burt's Bees co-founder Burt Shavitz misspelled his brother Carl's name as Karl. It also said Shavitz's father worked in a factory. He was an actor and businessman. —
The subject of a 2013 documentary called “Burt's Buzz,” Shavitz had worked as a photojournalist in New York City before giving up big city life for a simpler existence. His chance meeting with Roxanne Quimby, a divorced mother of two thumbing for a ride in rural Maine in 1984, led to a partnership that flourished until the late 1990s, when she bought him out for $130,000.
The company was later sold to Clorox for $900 million.
Shavitz claimed to care little about material success. He lived in a converted turkey coop with no electricity or indoor plumbing and preferred the company of his several dogs to people. “No one has ever accused me of being ambitious,” he said in the film directed by Jody Shapiro.
His quirkiness was acknowledged in the official company statement on his death. “We will remember him as a wild-bearded and free-spirited Maine man, a beekeeper, a wisecracker, a lover of golden retrievers, a reverent observer of nature and the kind face that smiles back at us from our Hand Salve,” the company said.
The son of a factory worker, Shavitz was born May 15, 1935, in Great Neck, N.Y. He was a photographer for the Army in Germany and for Time-Life in New York City in the 1960s before turning to beekeeping in rural Maine about 1970.
After moving in with Quimby, Shavitz suggested that she turn some of his beeswax into candles. They began selling the candles at crafts fairs along with Shavitz's honey.
In 1988, Quimby began selling lip balm made from warm beeswax and clove oil. Burt's Bees incorporated in 1989, with Quimby holding a 70% stake and Shavitz 30%.
The new company's first factory was in an abandoned Maine schoolhouse. In 1993, as sales reached about $3 million a year, the company sought a new home in a state with a lower tax base and moved to North Carolina.
About this time, Shavitz and Quimby had a falling out. She bought his share of company by buying him a house and land in Maine. In 2003, she sold her stake to a private equity firm for $141 million and paid her former partner $4 million. Clorox bought the company in 2007.
Shavitz remained a company advisor and made promotional appearances for the rest of his life.
Although the house Quimby bought him was grander than his turkey coop, he preferred the humbler abode and eventually moved back to it, embracing the back-to-basics life he had before his company turned him into an icon.
“He's everything you want him to be, but nothing you think he should be,” filmmaker Shapiro told Canada's National Post last year. “If you looked at the logo, you'd think he's probably not a real guy, but OK, maybe he's a farmer who raises bees and lives naturally. Then you find out he's a real person and he really is like that.”
Shavitz is survived by his brother, Karl.