Building a company has been a lesson in balancing ambition and compromise for the co-founder of Burt's Bees.
As told to Susan Donovan
The story of Roxanne Quimby is the stuff of entrepreneurial legend. A divorced mother living without electricity, she teamed up with Burt Shavitz, a reclusive beekeeper, and in 1984 began selling items made from beeswax. Over the years she built that crafts business into Burt's Bees, a leading natural personal-care brand. Last fall Quimby, who'd bought out Shavitz when he retired, struck a deal to sell 80% of the company to AEA Investors, a private-equity firm, for more than $175 million. She plans to donate half the proceeds to a land trust to establish a national park in northern Maine and is now even weighing a run for that state's governorship.
Burt's Bees was a result of having my kids. I'd been an artist, part of a generation that was very critical of capitalism. When I was 25, my husband and I bought 30 acres of land and built a cabin in the Maine woods. I washed diapers in water heated on the wood stove. I lived that way because I didn't want to compromise; I didn't want to be part of the problem. It was difficult--there was an amazing amount of hauling things--yet I loved it, because it was a chosen challenge. But after my marriage broke up, I realized my informal vow of poverty was limiting my children's choices. I had traveled; my parents had given us a great education--my sisters are both M.B.A.'s. To give my kids opportunities I had to start a business.
At 36, I met Burt. He was selling honey on the side of the road. I stopped to buy some on my way to my waitress job. We became romantically involved, and I started helping him with the bees.
Immediately, I saw a business opportunity. Burt was selling honey in gallon jars for 12 bucks. You could get more money by selling it in smaller containers to tourists. So I took over the business end. I put honey up in cute little beehive-shaped jars. I made pretty handmade labels and started making candles out of the beeswax. Then I took them to the little craft fairs in the little towns. I'd make $200 a day. It gave me such a sense of accomplishment. Nobody told me what to do, when to be there, and how long I had to stay. That wonderful sense of independence was just intoxicating. And I thought, This is for me.
At the fairs, I focused closely on what sold the most and tried to figure out why. I didn't know it then, but it was like having one focus group after another. I learned, for instance, that when people pick up a candle, they turn it over. For some reason they want to see the bottom, so I made sure the candles were nicely finished with a sharp knife to smooth the mold.
In the early years, I had some midnight-of-your-soul type of times. Once, I came home from a fair and found the window in my cabin blown in. Snow was all over. It was 20 below and 3 in the morning. I hadn't made any money and the car had just barely made it there. I really believe that success is just getting up one more time than you fall. It doesn't come from one brilliant idea, but from a bunch of small decisions that accumulate over the years. And you shouldn't underestimate the amount of work that's involved, the amount of fear that's involved.
I'm not sentimental about products--they perform or they don't. We tried lots of different things. One was beeswax lip balm. It was clear, very early, that people bought lip balm 10 times faster than they bought beeswax furniture polish. Next was a moisturizing cream. It sold better than the polish too.
Success doesn't come from one brilliant idea, but from a bunch of small decisions.
By 1993, we reached $3 million in sales. That's when I realized I had to leave Maine. The disappointing thing was leaving my employees, mostly moms who'd been on welfare. But I never lost sight of the fact that the business needs were most important, that we needed to go to somewhere more business-friendly.
I think Maine has a chip on its shoulder when it comes to businesses. Once we were investigated by the Department of Labor. The investigator visited all the home workers. He went to see this lady who had a preschooler. She was rolling up sheets of wax into candles, and in between each sheet was a piece of tissue paper. He goes, "Does your child help you with this?" She says, "Well, I have her take the tissue out." She did that to keep the little girl busy while she rolled candles. We got fined $10,000 for a child labor infraction. Though I won on appeal, these things take an enormous amount of time and mental energy. I thought, This is ridiculous, and I'm not going to stand for it.
We looked at a lot of states. We chose North Carolina, which had an aggressive business-recruiting machine. In Maine we paid 8% unemployment tax. In North Carolina, it's 1%. But I didn't anticipate one big difference. In Maine, I'd start people at $5 an hour. In North Carolina, nobody would work for less than $10 an hour. Immediately, I had to get rid of any item that was handmade, including candles, which were half our sales. It was like lopping off your arm. I didn't know if we would survive it, but it was the right thing to do.
I tend to be very uncompromising. My dad was a despot, and I got that from him. Though I used to see it as an attribute, I'm trying to modify this "my way or the highway" attitude. For instance, we put our product in cases of six, and Target wanted them in two. We'd be using three cardboard boxes instead of one, which I opposed. I kind of said, "Screw you, I'm not using three boxes." I felt I was right because we were drowning in waste on this planet. Now I think there was probably a way to have worked through that. Many times there's a solution buried in there if you just take away the layers and keep after it.
I always knew I'd sell the company. I took on all comers. Some were more serious than others, but they all wanted to play the game. The negotiation would always break down over price, so we hired an adviser who has her own company. She was entrepreneurial, and we figured we'd be more important to her than to a big investment bank. After we brought her in, it took a year to make the sale. I'll continue on as CEO because I don't think the company would survive my leaving right now.
What motivates me to keep building the company is not money. I live a simple lifestyle; rice and beans and the little Maine town I live in is fine. I'm in it for the challenge; it's about the game. The money is just kind of the score. I'm still very curious about how far I can push this.