What would you do if you were paid $130,000 for the successful company you'd co-founded, and then that company was sold to a major brand for close to $1 billion-of which you received only $4 million? You might celebrate your windfall. You might buy a fancy boat, or start a heckuva college fund for your children and grandchildren. Or you might sue for a bigger share.
Whatever you did, you probably wouldn't go live in a house without running water on 37 acres in a remote section of Maine. But that's what Burt Shavitz did, and it suited him just fine. Shavitz was the co-founder of Burt's Bees, the phenomenally successful line of cosmetics that started out as a way to use the leftover wax from his beekeeping. He died at 80 on July 5 of respiratory complications, according to a Burt's Bees spokesperson, surrounded by family and friends.
The Inc.com editor who requested a column about Shavitz referred to him as "rather eccentric" and he certainly was that. But after spending 22 years in Woodstock, New York, I'm very familiar with his type. Our community there was full of people living close to the land, cutting up wood for wood stoves, keeping bees-as Shavitz did-or raising goats, or heirloom vegetables. Long hair, long beards, and tie-dye were the norm. One of my best friends lived for years in a house with no running water-an upgrade from the school bus that had been his first home after moving to town.
Though most of these people own small businesses in one way or another, none of them are what you would call an ambitious entrepreneur. They deal in cash or barter. Many have no websites and only use a computer once in a while at the local library. You meet them at the local farmer's markets or maybe by driving deep into the country to their farms. When I say I write for Inc., they think tattoos.
Needless to say, Shavitz didn't have the business smarts to create the Burt's Bees empire. That was a matter of pure luck: One day he picked up a hitchhiker named Roxanne Quimby, a single mom who had fallen in love with the back-to-the-land lifestyle herself. She and Shavitz became lovers (he said) and she upgraded his $12/gallon local honey business by selling smaller quantities in pretty jars to the tourist trade.
That left a lot of wax, we she transformed first into candles, then into cosmetics. The business continued to grow rapidly and Maine's super-protective labor laws began to chafe, so Quimby relocated to more-business-friendly North Carolina. That was the beginning of the end for Shavitz, who was forced out (he said) because of an affair with an employee. He high-tailed it back to Maine and Quimby bought him out for approximately $130,000.
And there he stayed, for the rest of his life, except when called out for appearances, which he was contractually obligated to do. When Quimby sold the company to Clorox in 2008, he got $4 million. Had he retained his original stake, it would have been worth about $59 million, according to The New York Times.
Shavitz said he didn't mind. He had no desire for "a trophy wife, a trophy house, a trophy car," he told a filmmaker in the documentary Burt's Buzz. "In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything. Money is nothing really worth squabbling about. This is what puts people six feet under. You know, I don't need it."
Of his former business partner, he said, "she's got her world and I've got mine, and we let it go at that." He might well have been speaking for all of hippiedom about the entire world of commerce.
You might think the feeling is mutual, but it isn't. Hippies may not like big business, but increasingly, big busines likes them. Burt's Bees is a perfect illustration of why. Quimby isn't just selling hand cream, body wash, and lip balm, she's selling a lifestyle and a philosophy that's perfectly reflected in the woodcut illustration of Shavitz that graces every product. Implicit in that image and in the company name-and explicit in the copy on its website-is the idea of a back-to-nature, hippie-filled, not-driven-by-profits-alone company. The kind of company whose products are pure enough that you can trust them on your skin, and on your loved ones. You get no hint that the business is owned by Clorox, or that Quimby hired a consultant to make sure she got the best deal possible when she sold.
These days, mistrust of major corporations is at an all-time high and consumers want everything as natural as possible. Suddenly the hippies-who've been rejecting big business and espousing nature for 50 years-look like they've been right all along. Slapping a hippie image on your product, whatever its actual corporate status, is an extremely smart thing to do. And so the awkward accommodation between profit-loving business people and nature-loving hippies is going to continue, at least for a while.
Here's the trailer for Burt's Buzz (which looks great):