12 Things You Didn’t Know about Burt of Burt’s Bees

getty images (burt) / istock (bee background)
getty images (burt) / istock (bee background) / getty images (burt) / istock (bee background)

Update (July 5th): We published this story last week, but on Sunday night news broke that Burt Shavitz passed away at the age of 80. Here's a look back at his life and legacy.

Burt Shavitz, born Ingram Berg Shavitz, did not set out to be famous. “No one ever accused me of being ambitious,” he says in Burt’s Buzz, a biographical documentary directed by Jody Shapiro. The 80-year-old hippie behind Burt’s Bees has always just been the person he is without apology. He doesn’t care that some people might not understand his choices or that he sometimes seems to contradict himself (he enjoys shooting on his farm, but abhors warfare). He cares about his solitude and his dogs and the insect that changed everything. Here are a few things we learned the real man behind the brand from Burt's Buzz.

1. He lives on a 40-acre farm in Maine ...

Shavitz lives incredibly simply on his farm. When he first moved there, he lived in a 400-square-foot brick cabin, and the property still doesn’t have electricity. When the hot water heater broke years ago, Shavitz refused to fix it and, instead, now heats his water on a wood stove.

2. ... And would rather not leave the property.

Preferring a quiet lifestyle, Shavitz’s best days are simple ones. “A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere,” he says in Burt’s Buzz. He doesn’t even own an alarm clock, preferring instead to sync his days with the rhythm of the sun: Getting up when it rises and going to sleep when it’s too dark to read.

3. As a child, Shavitz once biked 100 miles by himself.

According to Shavitz, his parents, especially his mom, were supportive of their son—even when he wanted to do things that most parents wouldn't even consider letting their kids do. Case in point: When Shavitz was little, he biked from his parents' house in Great Neck, N.Y., to Montauk Point, about 100 miles away, and slept in jails along the way. The accommodations, he says, were his mother’s idea. The officers would always call his mother to make sure she knew where he was, but once they learned he had her permission, they would allow Shavitz to spend the night—though not necessarily in a cell.

4. He got his first camera when he was six.

Shavitz was supposed to inherit his family’s graphic arts business, but after leaving the army, he moved to New York and made a career out of taking photographs of the scenes of the city. He became a photographer for Time and Life magazine and captured images of the rallies, protests, and turmoil of New York in the 1960s.

5. He actually kept bees.

After abruptly leaving New York for the countryside in 1970, Shavitz lived as a self-described “high class hobo,” doing odd jobs such as shoeing horses and cleaning barns for people in the area. One day, he stumbled upon a colony of bees and asked around for the equipment to start beekeeping. At its peak, Shavitz had 26 hives.

6. He started his business selling honey out of his truck bed.

The business of Burt’s Bees began exactly where it normally does with beekeepers. “I realized as long as I had one beehive, I could sell honey,” Shavitz says in Burt’s Buzz. He would load up his truck with the sweet stuff, park it on the side of the road and then wait—often falling asleep in the cab—until a customer showed up.

7. He picked up his future business partner when she was hitchhiking.

At the time, Roxanne Quimby lived with her two kids in the woods with no electricity and no running water. She was soon working with Shavitz at his bee business. She learned the trade of beekeeping and how to make beeswax candles from one of his beekeeping books. It was Roxanne’s idea to use all the beeswax Shavitz had saved over the years to create personal care products—starting, of course, with lip balm.

8. There's an actual wood carving of Shavitz.

The image of Shavitz that has graced the packaging of his Burt’s Bees products since the late 1980s depicts an actual wood carving, which was created by artist A.C. Kulik. Kulik also created a beehive carving, as well as one with the likeness of one of Shavitz's golden retrievers, Rufus, that was at one point featured on Shavitz’s products for pets and dog biscuits.

9. He attended the first Earth Day celebration in Central Park.

Shavitz has always been committed to protecting the environment, so it should come as no surprise that he was one of the million who gathered to celebrate the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

10. Quimby and Shavitz don’t speak anymore.

When Burt’s Bees was incorporated in 1991, Quimby owned two thirds and Shavitz one third. After making $3 million in sales, the company moved to North Carolina in 1993. Quimby handled product development while Shavitz managed the retail stores, but the pair’s relationship soured. In 1999, Quimby bought Shavitz out of the company for a home and 50 acres of property estimated at $130,000. (He sold the house a couple months later and moved back into his turkey coop.) Four years later, she sold 80 percent of the company to AEA Investors for $141.6 million. If Burt had held on to his stake, it would have been worth $59 million. (In 2007, the company was sold to Clorox for $913 million). But after the AEA sale, Quimby did give Burt $4 million.

11. He's an international celebrity ...

Shavitz still makes annual appearances to promote the brand in all his bearded glory. A scene in Burt’s Buzz shows Shavitz receiving a rock star welcome from fans of his products in Taiwan when he arrives for whirlwind tour of the country. He is greeted by a crowd holding giant versions of the brand’s logo and wearing gold, glittery antennae. Shavitz dons a necklace made of Burt’s Bees lip balm while taking pictures with his fans.

12. ... and a dog person.

At one point, Shavitz had two golden retrievers, Rufus and Pascha, who were both listed in the phone book (Shavitz himself remained unlisted). He held Rufus in his arms when the dog died, and Skyped with Pascha from Taiwan. So when Shavitz says he needs to buy a sidecar for his motorcycle so he can take Pasha with him on rides, he probably isn’t joking.