Burt Shavitz, the man depicted in the logo of the Burt’s Bees brand of personal care products, died in Bangor, Maine, on Sunday at the age of 80 from respiratory complications, USA Today reported.
He was surrounded by family and friends.
Born Ingram Berg Shavitz — “Burt,” as he was called most of his life — was a city boy who struck out on his own in rural Maine in 1970 and built a multimillion-dollar business that was purchased by the Clorox Corporation in 2007.
His rise to success was filled with strife, but Shavitz was able to enjoy his twilight years without electricity or running water in the backwoods of Maine with his three beloved dogs. He’d occasionally hit the road to promote the Burt’s Bees brand at special events for Clorox.
“We remember him as a bearded, free-spirited Maine man, a beekeeper, a wisecracker, a lover of golden retrievers and his land,” the company wrote in a statement.
In the 2013 documentary “Burt’s Buzz,” filmmaker Jody Shapiro took a look at Shavitz’s unusual life and the controversial backstory of Burt’s Bees. The documentary chronicled how Burt’s Bees started as the product of a loving romantic relationship between Shavitz and cofounder Roxanne Quimby that later fell apart and ended in lasting bitterness.
Before Shavitz met Quimby or even had any bees, he was an eccentric loner from Long Island who never seemed to fit in with everyone else. Shavitz unofficially changed his name from Ingram to Burt after graduating high school and moving to Manhattan, where he eventually became a photographer for Time and Life.
One day in 1970, he realised he was terrified of growing old in a dingy apartment and decided to pack up and head to the country, ending up in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. He grew out his hair and beard and learned the art of beekeeping.
Shavitz marked his hives with “Burt’s Bees” to keep them from being robbed and developed a reputation among locals for selling gallons of honey out of his truck on the side of the road. He met Quimby, a single mother of twins, in 1984.
The two didn’t start off as business partners but as a couple. As Shavitz put it to The New Yorker, “She was man-hungry, and she and I, by spells, fed the hunger.”
In the film, Shavitz grew wistful when he spoke of their early days together and admitted that she was the only woman he ever truly loved.
Shavitz showed Quimby an old beekeeping book filled with beeswax recipes, and the two began selling candles in addition to honey. Locals scooped them up, and the business partners began selling more products and growing distribution. They incorporated the company in 1991.
Shavitz, who was even then more content selling just enough products to keep his simple lifestyle, never shared Quimby’s passion for business growth. But he agreed to become the face of the company, appearing in print ads and using his engraved portrait as its logo.
The film’s narrative suggested Shavitz and Quimby grew further apart as Burt’s Bees became more successful and Quimby’s vision became more ambitious.
Things came to a head in 1994, when Quimby moved the company’s headquarters to Durham, North Carolina, and Shavitz left the company, the details of which remain controversial.
Shapiro told Business Insider last year that he asked Quimby to be in his film, but she declined and referred him to her son, Lucas St. Clair.
In the documentary, St. Clair explained that his mother has said Shavitz was not happy working for a large company and that he volunteered to leave. Shavitz agreed with the first part, but not the second.
Telling his mum’s side of the story, St. Clair said there was talk back then that his mother discovered Shavitz was carrying on an affair with one of their young employees and felt it threatened the business.
Shavitz claimed that Quimby was upset to learn he had been sleeping with other women, and that she gave him an ultimatum in response: He needed to sign a contract signing over his shares of the company to her or else she would take him to court for sexual harassment.
Regardless of what actually happened, Shavitz remained resentful. “Roxanne Quimby wanted money and power, and I was just a pillar on the way to that success,” he said in the documentary.
Quimby bought out Shavitz in 1999 and gave him a house valued at $US130,000, according to The New York Times.
Just five years later she sold 80% of Burt’s Bees to AEA Investors for $US173 million, and then the Clorox Corporation acquired the company for $US925 million in 2007. The Associated Press reports that Quimby made more than $US300 million in the Clorox deal.
Shavitz may have missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars, but Quimby said she eventually gave Shavitz an additional $US4 million. In an email to the AP last year, she wrote: “Everyone associated with the company was treated fairly, and in some cases very generously, upon the sale of the company and my departure as CEO. And that, of course, includes Burt.”
Shavitz clearly showed sadness and anger regarding Quimby in the film, but Shapiro said last year that even after spending all that time with him for the project, he was unsure of whether Shavitz felt cheated.
“I think he feels hurt, but those might be for personal reasons, not financial,” Shapiro wrote in an email. “From hearing his account, I truly believe at the time he wasn’t happy with his role in the company — as he said: He never wanted a 9-5 job, or spending all his time in a factory. I also don’t think at the time when he left the company people really understood how big it was going to get or how much it was going to be worth.”
We reached out to Shavitz’s personal assistant Trevor Folsom last year to ask Shavitz what he thought of his portrayal in the film.
“Burt said, ‘Who remembers?'” Folsom wrote in an email, which was a typical carefree response from the founder.
But Folsom said he knew Shavitz liked the documentary. “He has previously answered that question by saying he loved the film and saying every person will always have their own opinion. He really enjoyed the film and never had anything bad to say about it at all. It is just him as he is always himself!” he wrote.
Despite the company’s contentious history, Quimby’s son Lucas St. Clair wrote on Twitter following Shavitz’s death: “Sad day, thinking about all the ways #BurtShavitz affected me over the years. He will be missed.”
Shapiro said Shavitz was a man of apparent contradictions: He was a peacenik who took target practice with his handgun; a hermit and a businessman.
He was always happiest, however, alone on his property in Maine, away from the executives, consumers, and money.
Here’s the trailer for “Burt’s Buzz”:
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