RIP, Burt from Burt’s Bees

BurtThere is absolutely no Grafton angle to this. However, Burt Shavitz, founder of Burt’s Bees, died at the age of 80 Sunday, which led me to dig up this (no longer online but in my archives) story I wrote after a day hanging out with Shavitz at the Bellingham Whole Foods back in December 2002. He was crotchety but friendly, and somewhere I may still have the autographed poster he gave me of himself on a motorcycle.

Copyright December 2002,The MetroWest Daily News

By Jennifer Lord
In the New England business tradition, there are a few people who are known only by their first names.
Ben and Jerry, ice cream guys.
Barry and Elliot, furniture guys.
And then there’s Burt, and his bees.
His bearded image stares out from the antique yellow labels on his products. Think crusty old Maine farmer, sprinkled with a little Jerry Garcia hipness.
It’s the number one question asked by callers to Burt’s Bees, the earthy-crunchy personal care products maker that’s developed a cult following: Is there really a Burt?
The answer spent this week hanging out at Bread and Circuses in Bellingham and Framingham, signing autographs while taking the pulse of product line
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Danielle Dublirer, looking from a tin of hand salve to the bearded gentleman behind the table at the Bellingham Bread and Circus. “This isn’t — you can’t be — the real Burt?”
“No,” said Burt Shavitz dryly. “I’m his evil twin.”
“Wow!” she said. “It is you!”
Shavitz, 67, doesn’t look or act the part of a part of a poster boy or, for that matter, the inspiration for a multimillion-dollar company. His tasseled hat is held in place by a horse blanket pin; he’s wearing work boots and fleece.
But back in 1984, beekeeper Shavitz started out selling honey and beeswax-based products at bake sales around Bangor, Maine. With the help of partner Roxanne Quimby, the product line slowly expanded into personal care products, starting with what is still the company’s number-one seller, Beeswax Lip Balm.
The company moved down to North Carolina in 1994 as the demand for the natural product with the old-timey and environmentally friendly packaging grew. Quimby bought out the face of the company in 1999, but Shavitz still lends a hand to the product that bears his name.
“It’s a double-edged sword, of course,” Shavitz said. “It can take an hour to do the simplest chore when there are so many interruptions, so many people wanting to talk to you. But it’s nice to be in a place where we have a lot of supporters — as the company grows, you start to lose touch with the end user. You want to know what they think.”
Case in point, a woman approached the table and asked about the nighttime moisturizer. She preferred the older version, were they planning to change the formula again?
“I really love the lipstick, though,” she added, referring to the new makeup line. “I can’t stand lipstick that tastes like lipstick.”
“That’s the parafin,” Shavitz said. “You don’t want that on your lips.”
That’s part of the philosophy of Burt’s Bees — if you don’t want to eat it, they don’t want to put it in their product. Brooks Juhring, territory manager for southern New England, pointed out the labels on the packages. Most are touted as 100 percent natural, others are only 99 percent.
The 1 percent that’s unnatural? That would be the added Vitamin E, which turns rancid quickly if used in its natural form.
“All our products are 100 percent edible. It’s food for your skin,” Juhring said. “When we do presentations of the product, we eat the product. That may sound weird, but it should be the norm for personal products. Whatever you put on your skin ends up being ingested by your body.”
And while the labels also brag that there is no animal testing associated with Burt’s Bees products, that’s not entirely accurate. Just ask Rufus, Shavitz’s golden retriever, who gets a daily dose of peppermint breath drops made just for dogs — that’s his face on the label, right next to the obsequious Burt.
Shavitz himself swears by the Res-Q Ointment and touted it as a soother for eczema and dry skin to several people who stopped by to scoop up free samples of coconut foot lotion and lavender-mint toothpaste.
“I use the cuticle cream — I know, a guy using cuticle cream? But I love how it smells,” said Todd Zimmerman, an employee at the Bellingham store who tried a sample one day out of curiosity.
Positive buzz has been the company’s only advertising to date as well as slow growth into more than 6,000 stores, most of them geared to a “healthy” market.
The company’s core user to be mothers, who usually start with the “Baby Bee” line of infant products (apricot baby oil, diaper cream, soap, powder and — for the baby out on the town — perfume). Now the core group tends to be college students, who turn around and bring samples back home to mom.
And then there are the people who buy a tube of lip balm one day and become addicted to the instant tingle on their lips.
“Some of our lip balm addicts are as bad as chain smokers. They can’t live without it,” Shavitz said. He paused for a beat. “Maybe I shouldn’t say that. That’s kind of an unhealthy thing to say about a healthy product.”
The back-to-nature aspect carries even to the company’s profits. What isn’t put back into the business goes to the preservation of conservation land in Maine, with 18,000 acres bought to date.
For Shavitz, success hasn’t meant a mansion or free-wheeling lifestyle. He still lives in a renovated 12-by-20-foot turkey coop heated only by a wood burning stove. Surrounded by open fields and woods, he has no electricity and water furnished by a hand pump 400 feet away from his rural Maine home.
“I can walk away from it any time I want to, especially in the winter, and not have to worry about the pipes freezing or something going wrong,” he explained.
One thing missing from his life now are bees. There may be a real Burt, but the real Burt no longer is able to be a beekeeper.
“Keeping bees is very labor intensive,” Shavitz said with regret. “I have a bad back and a hernia, so it doesn’t make sense for me to keep bees, as much as I’d like to.”


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