Burt’s Bees

BY Dorothy Rankin

Roxanne Quimby was a single mother of young twin girls living close to nature — without electricity or running water — in a small cabin on 30 acres of woods in central Maine. She had a lifelong passion for the arts and nature a B.F.A. in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute and the pressing need for a steady job. In 1984 while buying and selling goods at yard sales and flea markets to pay her bills she met local beekeeper and New York refugee Burt Shavitz selling his honey at a roadside stand. They became friends and decided to make use of the abundance of beeswax stored in Shavitz’s honey house which Quimby then began using to craft bee-shaped candles. Their first sales at a Christmas Craft Fair brought in $200.

Quimby and Shavitz became both romantic and business partners and in 1989 they started Burt’s Bees putting the honey in redesigned beehive-shaped containers with handmade labels and selling them at craft fairs throughout Maine.

Quimby eventually created a line of 150 natural skin and body products and by 2003 Quimby and Shavitz’s little homemade business had evolved into an internationally renowned personal care company committed to pure ingredients naturally efficacious formulas and earth-friendly packaging.

Today Burt’s Bees’ products can be found all over the world and the company did $250 million in retail sales in 2006. Not bad for a cottage industry whose first manufacturing facility was an abandoned schoolhouse with broken windows and no heat.

Much-loved products such as Beeswax Lip Balm Evening Primrose Overnight Creme Almond Milk Beeswax Hand Creme Dr. Burt’s Res-Q Ointment and dozens of other natural remedies cosmetics and Baby Bee products are no longer produced in a broken-down schoolhouse. In fact they are no longer produced in Maine but in the Tar Heel State.

Responding to the distribution needs of the growing company Burt’s Bees transferred its operations from Maine to North Carolina relocating to the Triangle area — Morrisville and Durham — in the early 1990s. The company moved not only its headquarters but its plant and distribution facility as well. In addition to a more accessible location the move provided what Allison Lane senior manager of marketing services describes as a wonderful employment base. Burt’s Bees now employs about 500 people.

All of this according to Lane was a result of Quimby’s deep desire to provide natural personal care products to “everyone everywhere ” because though the demand for such products is now solid and ever-growing when Quimby and Shavitz began their journey as a “kitchen stove enterprise ” natural personal care products was at best a niche market.

But it was Quimby’s founding philosophy that “doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive” that gave Burt’s Bees its core identity.

Burt’s Bees uses natural ingredients with very simple processes Lane says and the company focuses on using renewable and sustainable ingredients. A logical extension of this philosophy produced one of the defining characteristics of Burt’s Bees — its dedication to ecological sensitivity. “If we’re going to source our products and our ingredients from nature we have to protect that environment as well ” Lane says.

The challenges of making natural products are many. For one thing ingredients come from all over and acquiring them can be a global venture. For instance the beeswax the company uses comes from Africa. It is wild-crafted and free of pesticides and to find it the company’s supplier goes from village to village paying fair trade prices to local beekeepers.

As if simply finding the ingredients isn’t challenging enough once found natural ingredients aren’t uniform. Since the production of beeswax depends on many factors — including sun amounts of rainfall and which flowers the bees pollinate — the color of the beeswax might vary from light amber to almost clear. Also natural ingredients have a significantly shorter shelf life than synthetically produced ingredients so you won’t find Burt’s Bees Honey and Orange Wax Body Lotion for example in 3-gallon jugs.

But you also won’t find petrolatum which can be toxic; glycol (the active ingredient in antifreeze) or parabens which some studies suggest may be endocrine disrupters.

The company’s environmental commitment extends to the products’ packaging as well. Burt’s Bees’ packaging is recyclable. It is produced using post consumer recycled material and wherever possible sustainable resources. The company is also dedicated to removing unnecessary secondary packaging — the box that contains a jar. It may look great on the shelf but it creates instant waste.

Lane sees all of this as a growing trend. “People all around the world are … interested in their health and well-being and the well-being of their environment ” she says “so they’re looking for ways to be more environmentally friendly and to be more discerning about products they use.”

The company’s employees are equally passionate about their work and Burt’s Bees’ current CEO John Replogle has led and endorsed the work of The Eco Bees a group of employee volunteers that shares ideas about how the company can improve its environmental footprint.

One idea that arose from the group involves the disposal of waste from the production of the company’s chamomile essential oil. The process of creating essential oils is a little like making tea — you put the teabag in the water you steep it to get the tea and then you throw away the teabag Lane explains. Instead of simply discarding the chamomile leaves after steeping though they are now sold to a N.C. company to make biofuel.

All of this has created an extensive cadre of loyal consumers. “Burt’s Bees is a brand built on the loyalty of consumers who like to tell their stories to other people. Our consumers are extremely educated and knowledgeable [about natural personal care products] “says Lane.

Burt’s Bees then represents the triumph of one woman’s vision. Its success is a testament to Quimby’s wisdom and determination. Though she sold 80 percent of the company in 2003 for $175 million (Shavitz had already retired and Quimby had bought him out) Quimby continues to serve on the board of directors helping to ensure that the company maintains its commitment to natural integrity.

Lane sounds distinctly proud when she says “The original philosophy is absolutely still guiding the company and still inspiring the employees here. Roxanne’s legacy is alive and well.”