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Minding His Beeswax

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Burt Shavitz’s explanation for why he became a beekeeper is short—and sweet. “Some fool told me if I stopped eating sugar, the bugs wouldn’t bother me,” he says. While testing the premise (it didn’t work), the Manhattan photo journalist turned mountain lodge caretaker switched to honey. The experience stung. “Buying honey in the store was very expensive,” he says. “It was pretty obvious that you could make money from bees.”

And how. In 1969, Shavitz started tending his own hives. Soon after, he was selling honey at roadside stands. Today, at 63, after expanding into environmentally friendly skin-care products, he’s a millionaire. Burt’s Bees, Inc., the mom-and-pop company that he and his business partner, Roxanne Quimby, 47, founded in 1991, turns out soaps, perfumes, creams and lotions—all made with natural herbs and oils—that retail from $2 (lip balm) to $18 (antiaging cream). Last year, sales totaled $6 million.

While eco-conscious celebs like Kirstie Alley, Cher and Demi Moore order by mail from the company catalog, other fans swarm to outlets such as Nordstrom’s and Williams-Sonoma. “I could not keep that stuff in stock,” raves Tony Mendoza, a buyer for the Nature Company, a chain of 130 specialty stores, where the beeswax lip balm and lemon cuticle cream have been top sellers. “And everyone loves that Burt’s picture is on the products.”

Shavitz himself prefers to keep a low profile. With only his golden retriever Rufus for company, he lives in Parkman, Maine (pop. 780), in a 12-by-12-foot remodeled turkey coop that a neighbor had discarded. It still lacks indoor plumbing.

“He is very eccentric,” says Quimby, a former waitress who befriended Shavitz in 1984 after hitching a ride with him in his ’48 GMC pickup. “He’s a little temperamental. He has lived alone for a long time, and it’s best that way. The first time his mother came to visit, she wanted me to know that she didn’t raise him that way.”

The older of two sons of Ed, an actor, and Natalie, an artist (both deceased), Shavitz grew up in New York “with a camera in my hand,” he says. After a stint as an Army photographer in the 1950s, he began selling his work to newspapers and magazines, covering such epochal events as JFK’s Inauguration, Malcolm X’s funeral and the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

But “living out of a suitcase gets old after a while,” he says, and New York City, where he had an apartment, “was not a nice place to live.” In 1969 he went to work as a caretaker at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y. There, a friend taught him how to raise bees. Seeking more solitude, Shavitz finally moved to Maine. When he met Quimby, she was a newly divorced mother of twins (now 20). “I was fascinated by Burt,” she says. “He seemed so independent, such a character and a role model.” The two dated briefly, until the romance fizzled. “But he was interested in getting my help with the bees,” Quimby says.

A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, Quimby packaged the honey in decorative jars and made teddy-bear-shaped beeswax candles that the couple hawked at local crafts shows. Big-city boutique owners took notice, sales shot up, and by 1993 Burt’s Bees had 44 employees turning out 75 products in a Victorian house in Guilford, Maine. A year later, seeking lower taxes and higher-skilled labor, they relocated the firm to North Carolina. Quimby is president. Shavitz, as vice president, lets her run the company and phones in advice from his Maine domain. “He’s real blunt,” Quimby says. “I find him very inspiring—when he’s not driving me crazy.”

After all, Shavitz does embody the company’s philosophy. Determined to broaden their products’ appeal to everyone, not just the beautiful people, Quimby says, “You show [customers] Burt [on the package labels], and they think, ‘Oh, boy, this is a funky brand. It must be really natural.’ ”

Michael A. Lipton

Julia Campbell in Parkman