Conventional wisdom suggests the Burt behind Burt’s Bees left the company after he became disillusioned with the corporate world in North Carolina and wanted to return to his solitary life in Maine.
The reality, Burt Shavitz says, is that he was forced out by co-founder Roxanne Quimby after he had an affair with an employee.
So the man on the Burt’s Bees logo that promises “Earth-friendly natural personal care products” ended up with 37 acres in Maine, and an undisclosed sum of money.
And he’s not complaining.
“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 6 feet under. You know, I don’t need it,” he told a filmmaker on property where the company was launched in the 1980s.
The reclusive beekeeper whose simple life became complicated by his status as a corporate icon is now the subject of a documentary, “Burt’s Buzz,” which opens Friday in some locations.
Interviewed by the Associated Press on his land in Maine, Shavitz declined to discuss his relationship with Quimby.
“What I have in this situation is no regret,” he said, sitting in a rocking chair. “The bottom line is she’s got her world and I’ve got mine, and we let it go at that.”
Shavitz, 79, grew up around New York, served in the Army in Germany and shot photos for Time-Life before leaving New York for the backwoods of Maine.
He was a hippie making a living by selling honey when his life was altered by a chance encounter with a hitchhiking Quimby. She was a single mother and a back-to-the-lander who impressed Shavitz with her ingenuity and self-sufficiency.
She began making products from his beeswax, and they became partners. An image of Burt’s face – and his untamed beard – was featured on labels.
The partnership ended on a sour note after the business moved in 1994 to North Carolina, where it continued to expand before Shavitz was given the boot. These days, he makes occasional promotional appearances on the company’s behalf.
In the documentary, Shavitz sounds both bitter and ambivalent.
“Roxanne Quimby wanted money and power, and I was just a pillar on the way to that success,” he said.
Quimby, who made more than $300 million when she sold the company, disagrees with any suggestion that Shavitz was treated improperly.
“Everyone associated with the company was treated fairly, and in some cases very generously, upon the sale of the company and my departure as CEO. And that, of course, includes Burt,” she said in an email to the Associated Press.
Shavitz lives in a cluttered house that has no hot water; he used to live in a converted turkey coop on the same property. He still likes to watch nature pass by.
All manner of critters traipse across the land: deer, moose, pine martens, even a pack of cacophonous coyotes. On a recent day, six baby foxes played in the field.
“Golly dang!” he exclaimed, his blue eyes gazing.
His humble life is a long way from the one where he stays in four-star hotels during promotional trips. The movie juxtaposes his ideal day, one in which he’s left alone, against a trip to Taiwan, where he was greeted like a rock star by fans wearing faux beards and bee costumes.
Director Jody Shapiro said his documentary presents contrasts: a man who wants a simple life but also likes to travel and experience new things; a vegetarian who likes to shoot guns; a man who’s content to sell honey but also helped launch a big business.
He described Shavitz as “an authentic character” but still isn’t sure what makes him tick.
“After hanging out with him for a year, I stopped searching,” he said. “Is he more complicated, or am I trying to make him more complicated?”
Shavitz doesn’t plan to change a thing. He has his three golden retrievers. And he has his land.
“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,” he said in the documentary.
“No one has ever accused me of being ambitious,” he joked.