BELFAST – Start a business with a pile of leftover beeswax, build it to annual sales of $170 million, and you have a story people want to hear.
Build that business from scratch in Guilford, Maine, and you have an audience on the edge of its seat.
Roxanne Quimby, who last month stepped down as CEO of Burt’s Bees, a personal care products business now based in Raleigh, N.C., spoke Friday to the fall conference of Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility.
Though her business was born in Maine, state government did little to nurture or support it, she said, and when suitors came knocking from other states, Maine could not compete with their offers.
These days, Quimby is probably best known in Maine as a proponent for a North Woods National Park, an effort she supports by buying and conserving land near Baxter State Park. What enables her to make those purchases is the money she made selling 80 percent of Burt’s Bees to a group of investors.
The idea for the company arose in the mid-1980s when Quimby met Burt, whom she described as a hermit who lives in a 14-foot by 14-foot cabin. Burt kept bees and sold honey by the gallon.
“He’s still there,” she said.
Burt had a shed full of beeswax he didn’t need, and he offered it to Quimby. She used it to make candles, Christmas tree ornaments, polishes and other products, which she hawked at craft fairs. Showing a page from a 1987 catalog on an overhead projector, Quimby noted that only one product – a beeswax lip balm – remains among the company’s wares today.
While Burt’s Bees “remained very flexible and experimental,” Quimby said the company followed a simple philosophy on products: If it didn’t sell, drop it.
That meant that when dog biscuits called “Burt’s bones” and birdseed called “Burt’s desserts” flopped, they were discontinued. Then there was the cat food that cats wouldn’t touch, even when sprayed with tuna fish oil.
“That line went nowhere fast,” she said.
Like Michelangelo, who said of his famous sculpture, “I took everything away that didn’t look like David,” Quimby said the personal care products such as moisturizers emerged, resulting in $3 million annual sales by 1993.
Branding the products was critical to success, she said. Mr. Clean and the Michelin Man worked for others, Quimby said, so why not create her own character and story?
“The hero of our story was Burt,” she said, a real-life, colorful, down-to-earth, back-to-nature character who looked the part of an eccentric backwoods hermit.
“He’s the alternative guy,” she said, and his story was featured in catalogs. Once it was the story of how she met Burt, the next time it was about how Burt came to have a dog, and so on. Burt’s scruffy beard and rugged face were featured on the cover of the catalog, emphasizing a difference from competitors who relied on beautiful models.
“We were everything they weren’t,” Quimby remembered. “Where they were slick, we were crunchy.” Though the marketing strategy was like “street theater,” she said, “the story is really true.”
With it, Burt became “sort of a rock star, a cult hero in a way,” Quimby said.
She described the Guilford area as a bastion of male dominance and found it difficult to find men who would work for a woman. Many of her workers were former welfare recipients, she said, or those who suffered from living with substance abusers, or who were victims of domestic abuse.
When the business grew enough that a bookkeeper was needed, Quimby contacted Piscataquis Valley High School and asked that a student who excelled at math be referred to her. A 14-year-old boy showed up and completed the balance sheet for 1987, which she showed on the projector.
In that year, Burt’s Bees had $62,000 in expenses; its first payroll was $8,600, and the company netted $16,000.
The lack of available business expertise would hamper the business in later years, though. Quimby advertised in the Boston Globe for an accountant, and though some of her candidates considered moving to Maine, no one would commit to living in Guilford.
“We really hit the wall [in 1993],” she said. “We kept missing deadlines that the IRS felt were really important.” The operation “started to look like Santa’s workshop. Enchanting, but it started getting out of control.”
There were also financial obstacles to staying in Maine. Quimby said 9 percent of her payroll expense was for unemployment insurance. When she moved to Raleigh in 1994, her workers’ compensation costs for 300 employees were lower than for 44 employees in Maine.
After her remarks, several people gathered around Quimby with questions. To a banker’s query, she confessed that Maine did little to keep her business in the state. When she made known her intention to move, North Carolina officials contacted her, and the next day a CD ROM was on her desk which computed the business’s tax liabilities if it relocated there.
Raleigh also was attractive because it is at the intersection of east-west and north-south interstate highways. When ordering a pallet of glass jars in Guilford, she often would pay more for shipping than for the jars. In Raleigh, with so many other businesses in the area, shipping is often free.
The best advice she could give to Maine in its pursuit of businesses like Burt’s Bees, Quimby said, is to reduce taxes and other burdens “and get out of the way.”