Burt Shavitz, Face Of Burt's Bees, Dies At 80

Jul 6, 2015
Originally published on July 6, 2015 9:02 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Burt of Burt's Bees has died. Burt Shavitz was an actual beekeeper who co-founded the company. Today, it's a brand known around the world for lip balm, lotions and baby products. Shavitz died of respiratory complications yesterday in Bangor, Maine. He was 80 years old. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, he was an eccentric nature lover.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Even though he's the bearded, cap wearing face of the company, the real Burt Shavitz was not interested in lip balm or moisturizer and definitely not big business. His passions were bees, his golden retrievers and privacy. In the early years, he sold honey out of his van on the side of the road in Maine as he told filmmaker Jody Shapiro in the documentary "Burt's Buzz."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BURT'S BUZZ")

BURT SHAVITZ: There was no company. My bees were the company. My truck was the company. My chainsaw was the company.

BLAIR: Then he met Roxanne Quimby. She was hitchhiking during the summer of 1984. She told NPR Burt the bee man, as he was known, offered her a ride in his pickup and the two began a romantic relationship.

ROXANNE QUIMBY: He's kind of bizarre with his long, curly, flowing hair and very independent kind of a fellow, thinks for himself.

BLAIR: But she's the one who thought about business. Quimby started making candles from Burt's unused beeswax. They started making other products like soap and the lip balm, a big seller at crafts fairs. In the early days, Burt's Bees was very do-it-yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BURT'S BUZZ")

QUIMBY: We had one high school boy and he was our accountant. He was on the math team, so he was qualified to do - run the accounting department. He was 14.

SHAVITZ: And made deposits.

QUIMBY: He made...

SHAVITZ: And wanted to wear a suit - and wanted to wear a white shirt and tie to work every day.

BLAIR: Clothes Burt Shavitz probably never wore himself. Shavitz was raised in Great Neck, N.Y. His father and grandfather were in the graphic arts business. In the 1960s, Shavitz worked as a freelance photographer, shooting images of the civil rights movement and artists for The New York Times and Life magazine. With a small inheritance from his grandfather, he bought land in Maine and became a beekeeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BURT'S BUZZ")

SHAVITZ: And living on the land and having the opportunity to see the seasons is part of the joy of life as far as I'm concerned.

BLAIR: Shavitz and Quimby eventually parted ways and not happily. In 1999, she bought him out for $130,000, according to The New Yorker. She later sold most of her share to a private equity firm for more than $140 million. She reportedly gave Shavitz $4 million. Burt's Bees was sold again to the Clorox Company for nearly a billion dollars. Today, the products are sold in over 50 countries. Shavitz was compensated for the use of his image on the label, and he was paid to make special appearances to promote the brand. On one such trip to Taiwan, Shavitz visited a beekeeper he knew there. Mariah Eckhardt, the marketing director of Burt's Bees, says it was quite a sight.

MARIAH ECKHARDT: The rest of the people that were there were all covered in all of this kind of bee protective gear and he just kind of walked right in. And he would have hundreds of bees crawling on his hands, and he used to say you don't need all this equipment if you know how to handle bees.

BLAIR: Burt Shavitz likely had enough money to live however and wherever he wanted. He preferred a remote cabin in the Maine woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BURT'S BUZZ")

SHAVITZ: A good day is when no one shows up and you don't have to go anywhere.

BLAIR: He was, to be sure, the reluctant face of a giant personal care products brand. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.