Eccentric is a nice way to describe Burt Shavitz, the real-life face of Burt's Bees. Benevolent grandfather figure with a shrewd head for business he is not, as a documentary called Burt's Buzz reveals. At the TIFF Bell Lightbox until this Thursday, the film by Canadian Jody Shapiro gently exposes the truth about Burt and the bees, and how a roadside stop for gallon-jugs of natural honey became the billion-dollar personal-care company it is today.
burt's buzz: the truth about burt and the bees
A few stories floating around the web allude to Burt's Bees co-founder Burt Shavitz having been cheated out of millions along with ownership of his company. Don't be fooled. "No one has ever accused me of being ambitious," he says in the series of laconic armchair musings that threads its way through Burt's Buzz. That's truth.
Now almost 80, Burt gave the family graphic arts business the cold shoulder before heading to college and then into the army. Several years later he left a promising photojournalist career that had already netted him work for Life, The New York Times and Time, in favour of an abandoned house sans running water in upstate New York. Soon after, he took up beekeeping and supported himself by selling honey from his van at the side of a road.
The Burt's Bees we know today is the result of drive, focus and ambition, but mostly from a woman named Roxanne Quimby, with whom Burt hooked up in 1984. A single mom and artist, she and her two small kids lived in similar no-running-water, no-electricity conditions as Burt. No doubt motivated in part by having young children to care for, Quimby relentlessly expanded the honey business to include candles, stove polish, Christmas ornaments, pet products -- and eye-catching packaging.
The lip balm was a turning point; its success shifted the Burt's Bees direction from craft-show sellables to personal care. In the late 1980s, Quimby commissioned the wood-cut portrait of Burt for the packaging, and embellished his back story to create the myth of Burt's Bees. (Although he says he understood the reason for the new promotional materials and marketing, Burt lets his resentment show clearly in the film.) In 1994, with the business pulling in more than $3 million annually, Quimby moved the base of operations from Maine to North Carolina, where it still is today.
Throughout the development and growth of Burt's Bees into a hugely successful enterprise, Burt was a reluctant participant. Fast-forward to his indiscretion with a much younger employee -- he admits to it quite baldly in the documentary -- and Quimby's outrage. The incident led to his signing over his rights to the company (he owned one third) in exchange for Roxanne's property in Maine, upon which he still lives. In 2007, Quimby sold the majority interest of Burt's Bees for $173 million; according to The Daily Beast, she apparently paid Burt $4 million. So Burt's a millionnaire who lives in a converted chicken coop without running hot water. By choice.
The Burt's Buzz documentary also eyes Burt as he makes a promotional appearance in Minneapolis and embarks on a press junket in Taiwan (fellow writers will feel for the editors trying to interview him for their magazine stories). A self-described outcast all his life, Burt can't be called a people-person -- he has more affinity for his bees and his beloved dogs, who want nothing from him that he's not willing to give. But that's still his face on the Burt's Bees packaging, so he's paid by the corporation to serve as ambassador, to meet fans, shake a few hands, and distribute lip balms. "I'm contractually obligated not to say 'buzz off,'" he says, "or to turn down the invitation for two 20-year-old girls to come up to my apartment in the hotel and take pictures."
Burt's Buzz premiered at the 2013 TIFF festival; it's at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at King and John until this Thursday. If you can't make it down there, Burt's Buzz is also available via iTunes. Here's the trailer:
Are you intrigued?
UPDATE: Burt Shavitz passed away on Sunday July 5, 2015. He was 80.