Burt’s Bees cofounder Roxanne Quimby has been the subject of much debate, due to a new biography and her effort to donate about 150,000 acres for a national park and recreation center in Maine.
In a strange case of happenstance, Phyllis Austin’s “Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees and Her Quest for a National Park” was published about a month before the death of Quimby’s cofounder Burt Shavitz. In a phone interview, Austin, who started working on the book off-and-on in 2009, said she had Quimby’s cooperation for the first two years. The entrepreneur stopped being interviewed by Austin and “withdrew from the public’s attention” after Maine residents took offense to a 2011 Forbes interview in which she referenced the state’s high obesity rate and oxycontin abuse problem, Austin said. While Quimby “simply got tired of answering questions,” she made it possible for Austin to speak with others for the book.
Building Burt’s Bees from 1985 to 2000, Quimby “worked her fingernails off figuratively to get things done. No one worked harder for that company than Roxanne. She had the business intuition and the artistic creative talent and she melded the two,” Austin said.
Quimby did not respond to a request for comment.
In 1984, Quimby met and became romantically involved with Shavitz, after he picked her up hitchhiking in rural Maine. (Shavitz died earlier this month at the age of 80.) Burt’s Bee personal-care business stemmed from their making candles using the extra beeswax from Shavitz’ honey business.
In 1993, their relationship ended after Quimby caught wind of an intercompany fling Shavitz was having, as seen in Jody Shapiro’s 2014 documentary “Burt’s Buzz,”Austin said. Quimby reportedly later forced him to give up his share of the company. In 1999, Quimby bought him out with a $130,000 house in Maine. When Quimby sold 80 percent of the company to AEA in 2003, she gave Shavitz $4 million, while she reaped $141 million.
In 2007, the remaining stake of Burt’s was sold to Clorox for $925 million. As for how much Quimby pocketed in total from the two sales, Austin said she “declined to give up that figure,” but estimates vary from $141 million to about $350 million. Last fall, Quimby read an advance copy of “Queen Bee” and suggested changes, which Austin made but declined to specify.
From Austin’s perspective, Quimby has spent the “tens of millions of dollars” she earned through Burt’s Bees to try to establish a national park before next summer’s centennial of the National Parks Service. Often describing Quimby as someone who lived “back-to-the-land,” Austin said. “So in the end, she might have sold Burt’s Bees, but she didn’t take the money and spend it on mansions. She founded Burt’s in connection with nature.”
Austin noted that Quimby believed that the quality of her natural products and the commitment of Burt’s Bees to the environmental greater good was more important to customers than cost. She added, “And someday they may know, ‘I can go to the eastern branch of the Penobscot River and my dollars went into buying that land.'”
But the plan has hit its share of detractors. Earlier this month, the Maine Woods Coalition wrote to Quimby and her son, Lucas St. Clair, via their family foundation Elliotsville Plantation Inc., urging them to ditch their plan for the Katahdin region, noting the area needs “investment and new jobs.” MWC president Anne Mitchell said, “Quimby has made it very clear both publicly and in private meetings that she will not abandon her plan to donate her land to the federal government in order to create a national park. The land she owns is not exceptional in any way and does not meet the criteria for establishing a national park, yet she is intent on this plan.”