Hear the buzz on Burt's Bees
By Christine Parrish
BELFAST (Oct 15, 2004): Burt's Bees, a natural cosmetics line, was started in 1987 when a beekeeper named Burt asked his girlfriend Roxy if she wanted the three years' worth of beeswax stored in his shed.
Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt's Bees, told the story of the development of the company at the Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility fall conference at the UMaine Hutchinson Center.
Burt's Bees, which had $50 million in sales in 2003, started out in an abandoned schoolhouse in Guilford. Quimby and Burt made beeswax candles and tree ornaments and drove to craft fairs around the state to sell them.
Roxanne Quimby, the founder of Burt's Bees. (Photo by Jay Davis)
Quimby, who moved to Maine as a single mother intent on simplifying her life, was attracted to Burt's independence and asked if she could help in beekeeping.
"He was a hermit who lived in a 14-by-14-foot cabin with no electricity, no running water and a dog," said Quimby, who sold an 80 percent share of the $50 million business to a private equity firm in 2003. "Burt's still there. Nothing has changed for him but his net worth and that kind of happened to him. He wasn't really looking for it."
That first year the sales of the beeswax candle encouraged Quimby to experiment with new products. A succession of folksy innovations followed, including: Boot Food, a boot polish made of bear fat and beeswax; and Burt's Bones, an all-natural dog bone. They made their way into the product line during the early years. A lot of products came; and when they didn't sell, a lot of products went.
"We were pretty much living off rutabagas and firewood in those days," said Quimby. "We were barely in the market economy at all and we didn't understand it. If a product didn't sell, we dropped it and tried something else, because selling and not selling was the difference between having the gas to get home."
Since Quimby was used to working hard and living on little, overhead was minimal and economic necessity drove her to experiment and prioritize.
"I never would have predicted in 1987 that the company would be what it is today," said Quimby. "I couldn't have predicted the product line at all. I mean, for a while we were making dog bones and cat food. The dog bones didn't sell, but at least the dogs liked them. We ate them when we couldn't sell them. But the cats wouldn't even eat the cat food, and neither would we."
The partners were still making all the products in the early 1990s when they got a last-minute invitation to have a display booth at the Maine contingent of the New York Gift Show, a huge wholesale event attended by buyers from all over the country. Quimby came back to Guilford with a sheaf of wholesale orders and realized she could no longer make all the beeswax products herself.
Over the next few years she hired women with limited work opportunities in the Guilford area, a workforce she describes as underutilized and overlooked. Needing a bookkeeper, she called up the local high school and hired Paul Daigle, a 14-year-old student on the math team, to do bookkeeping and payroll.
Burt the beekeeper sports vacation attire. (Image courtesy of Burt's Bees)
By 1993, the company had so many requests for orders that it had to grow to remain competitive.
"We had 40 employees and we were still making everything by hand," said Quimby. "It was rudimentary and enchanting, sort of like Santa's workshop, but it was out of control. I needed more expertise than I could get in Guilford. I put ads in the Boston Globe looking for a bookkeeper, but no one was willing to live in a place where it was an hour's drive to a movie theater."
Quimby realized she would need to relocate the business in order to grow. She approached the Maine Department of Commerce several times to see if it could help her stay in the state. Department officials didn't return her phone calls but other states sought her out. In 1994, she relocated the business to Raleigh, N.C.
"I gave Maine the chance to keep me and they blew it," she said, noting that after the story about the company's upcoming move to North Carolina was published in Forbes magazine, the state contacted her and tried to get her to stay. By that time, employees were loading the trucks. "The cost of doing business in Maine is enormous. It's not the cost of labor. That's higher in North Carolina."
Quimby said she pays less workers' compensation and unemployment insurance for 300 employees in North Carolina than she did for 40 in Maine. Transportation costs are also lower.
After an initial dip in sales after the move, the company secured its niche in the natural cosmetics market by a variety of methods, including introducing a make-up line. The lip balm is the only product still selling from those early days.
The most successful marketing methods, according to Quimby, are the "branding" of Burt and the logo of the beehive and the bees created by local artist Tony Kulik, who owns Engraven Images, an art gallery on High Street in Belfast.
"I met Roxanne at a craft show when she was still dipping candles and she asked me to draw up a label," said Kulik, who was commissioned by Burt's Bees for about 40 prints over the years. "They had a library of them, so they could just pick one when they had a new product."
Quimby said, "We knew by then that we would have to create a personality like the Doughboy [for Pillsbury] because we have a short time to connect with the consumer and keep them." She realized the Burt's Bees image did not require the slick and polished beauty of Revlon but a weird, hippie beauty.
"Our hero was Burt," she said. "He's down-to-earth and independent. Sort of the antithesis of slick. We couldn't have made up a better story. He ended up having a cult hero appeal."
"He gives beauty advice, too," she said.
Quimby transitioned out of her role as the CEO of Burt's Bees on Sept. 10 of this year, but retains 20 percent ownership and is still involved in decision making. The goal of the company is to make Burt's Bees a national consumer brand on the level of Neutrogena, which Johnson & Johnson bought last year for $900 million.
Quimby, who wears no make-up and whose healthy head of hair is naturally streaked with silver, is ready to use her business skills in a way she considers nobler. A self-described radical environmentalist, she is currently championing the proposal for a North Woods National Park in Northern Maine.
As for creating a business-friendly environment in Maine, Quimby said the state needs an overhaul.