After only one semester at the University of Massachusetts, Roxanne Quimby told her father she was dropping out of school to follow her boyfriend, George, to the San Francisco Art Institute to pursue oil painting. Her father had expected her to get an MBA from the Harvard Business School just as he had done. After all, her two older sisters had gotten MBA’s. It would be over twenty years before Roxanne would see or talk to her father again. In 1976 when she and George married, her father refused to come to their wedding even though they married in the family’s backyard in Boston.
When Roxanne graduated from the Art Institute, she swapped her middle class upbringing for a back-to-the woods lifestyle. She and George packed up an old Volkswagen van and moved to Guilford, in northern Maine. They bought 30 acres of land with the $3,000 they had saved. Using bow saws, they cleared the land and built a two-room cabin, which had no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing. Food was cooked on a wood stove. In order to have enough money to pay their property taxes, George worked as a radio DJ and Roxanne worked part-time as a waitress. She was a lousy waitress, though, and by 1983 she had been fired from the third and last restaurant in Guilford.
In the summer of 1984, Roxanne caught a ride to Guilford with 49-year-old Burt Shavitz, a local hippie and beekeeper. He had been a successful photographer in Manhattan, but spurned the urban lifestyle, bought 20 acres of land and moved into a small boarded-up turkey coop to raise bees.
Roxanne spent the summer of 1984 learning bee keeping from Burt, who earned about $3,000 a year selling honey by the side of the road. She convinced him to replace the pickle jars he had been using to store honey with cute teddy bear and beehive designed containers. Then she figured out how to use the beeswax from the hives to make decorative candles. A born merchant, at age six Roxanne had baked cookies and sold them door-to-door in her neighborhood, so when she made $200 from selling honey and candles at her first craft show her entrepreneurial fire was lit.
In 1985, Roxanne made about $20,000 selling Burt’s honey and her candles at craft shows in Maine and Vermont. Her candles were so popular that she rented a small building and hired several part-time employees to help with production. Two years later sales had reached $80,000 per year and in 1989 a Manhattan boutique buyer discovered her Teddy Bear candles at a Springfield, Massachusetts’s craft show and began to order hundreds of them. Several large chain stores followed suit. As the business grew Roxanne experimented with other products made from beeswax. After about fifty tries, she perfected a lip balm made from all natural ingredients and later she introduced creams, balms, and lotions for women, all made from natural ingredients.
By 1993 Roxanne’s products were sold in all fifty states with sales topping $3 million. Along the way, she bought Burt’s one-third interest in the company and moved the business to North Carolina. Roxanne’s father never called her but in 1998 she called him. By then he had read about her business success in Forbes Magazine and in the Harvard Business Review and was very proud of her. She says, “I think my ambition was a way of proving to myself and proving to him that he was wrong about me.”
Roxanne named her company Burt’s Bees, the name that was written on the sides of Burt’s beehives when she met him in 1984. In 2007 she sold her interest in Burt’s Bees to Clorox for $925 million. Today, at age 67 Roxanne divides time between homes in Florida and Maine. Whenever possible she spends time with her twins and with her 94 year old father. Her latest project is the creation of a new National Park in Maine on the 74,000 acres she purchased through the years. Although she paid Burt four million dollars for his interest in the company, he continued to live in the boarded up turkey coop in Guilford until his death in 2015 at age 80.
“Very rarely are you going to hit a homerun right out of the box. You’re gonna go through a lot of trial and error and you’re gonna make lots of mistakes. And the major thing is not to be discouraged because you learn so much more from your mistakes than your successes.” Roxanne Quimby