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Movie review | Burt’s Buzz

We all know Burt Shavitz as the iconic face of Burt’s Bees, the large, Clorox-owned company that sells personal care products in tiny, expensive containers. I knew Burt’s life was riddled with conflict, but I hadn’t realized how sad it was until I watched the amateur documentary, Burt’s Buzz.

If you don’t know the story of Burt, he began his career as a photographer for Time and Life magazines on the streets of Manhattan. One day, longing to be outdoors and closer to nature, he packed up and left for the Maine woods. He did odd jobs and eventually, more or less by accident, became a beekeeper, selling honey by the side of the road.

One day he met Roxanne Quimby, a displaced mother of twins who was living in a tent. He befriended her and told her she could have his beeswax and make candles for some extra income. Quimby was ambitious, and soon turned the roadside pickup into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

Burt didn’t want to be a businessman and tensions between them grew. Eventually, in 1999, Quimby more-or-less forced Burt to sell his share of the business to her for $130 thousand.

Five years later, in 2004, AEA Investors purchased 80% of the company for $173 million and Quimby retained the remaining 20%. Three years later, the Clorox Corporation paid $925 million for the entire company and turned it into a behemoth.

According to Quimby, she later gave Burt an extra $4 million, but it’s not entirely clear if she did or not. In any case, it’s not a pretty story.

The documentary has mixed reviews. Some people like it, some find it boring and slow. As a beekeeper, I found it fascinating in a sort of sad and melancholy way. I could also identify with Burt on some level, the way he loves the land, the bees, and his alone time.

Not an action-packed thriller by any means, the film is by turns heart warming and heart wrenching. Although the film glosses over the beekeeping aspect of Burt’s life, I think most bee lovers would find the film compelling, or at least interesting. I recommend it for one of those low-key, pensive evenings.


The film is available on Amazon in a variety of formats: Burt’s Buzz

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

*This post contains an affiliate link.

Comments

cgrey8
Reply

I watched it too and I have a rather “odd” perspective than most took from the movie.

First off, I was disappointed that it didn’t discuss the bees more. There’s only a few places where you actually see an apiary and they took no time to discuss the bees at all. So don’t look for that in the documentary. The focus is very much on his life.

Second thing I took from it is he never wanted to build the business of Burts Bees to be that big. It was her dream, not his. It was just his iconic likeness on the products. But from what I gathered, she did most of the work to “build the business”. He was just a cog in the machine…which is all he wanted to be.

The documentary, whether intentional or not, leads the viewer to feel sorry for him not getting more, financially, from the company than he did. But from what I could tell, he never wanted to be as involved as he was. He was content living a simple life with 26 hives to his name. From that viewpoint, he didn’t deserve the riches that came from the company she was trying to build. The person that invested the time and effort in the company, had a vision for the company, marketed it, and eventually sold it was her. So it seemed perfectly fitting that she was the one that was rewarded. You might disagree with some of her methods, but he was a grown man capable of making decisions for himself. If he didn’t want to agree to the proposals she was making, he didn’t have to. But he did. And IMO the fact that the company later grew to be as successful as it was (without him) isn’t something to feel bad about. If anything the story diminishes and almost trivializes her hard work, vision, and dedication. That’s what I didn’t like.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

On the other hand, brand image is everything in the corporate world. It is his face, his image, that is richly associated with Burt’s Bees and he should be compensated handsomely for the use of that image. If Roxanne had given him say $10 million out of her initial sale of $173 million, I could accept that. But $130 thousand? That is a smack in his valuable face.

cgrey8
Reply

Without understanding the contracts that were signed over the timeline, it’s difficult to say whether that is true or not. If use of his likeness rights was part of his original payment he agreed to back when the company was NOT worth millions, then he sold control of that. Of course if he’d had a crystal ball, he would’ve negotiated some royalty payout over time or simply not sold-out at all.

But based on the way he lived his life, money never was a driving force. While that might be admirable as a human, that personality trait does not a multi-million dollar company make. And the fact that he could afford FAR better for himself today, he chooses to live like he does. To me, that suggests even if he had been apart of those big payouts, he would still live his life just the same. So what is there to feel sorry for?

Rusty
Reply

In a free society, compensation is not based on need. Whether you feel sorry for him or not, whether he wanted it or not, I believe he deserved more of that money. He could always elect to give it away if he didn’t want it, or he could have given it back to her, but that should be his decision not hers.

cgrey8
Reply

You said “In a free society, compensation is not based on need.” Amen.

It’ll be interesting to hear other people’s take on the documentary. BTW for those with Netflix, it’s available there.

Pam Jedlicka
Reply

I saw this film and agree with cgrey8. Burt is one quirky character. I believe there is one place in the film where he actually says he didn’t want any part of the business. If he had wanted to be compensated for the use of his likeness, if he felt he ‘deserved it,’ he should have spoken up. So his decision was not to seek such compensation. Even if he had changed his mind down the road, he would likely have been able to negotiate compensation. Since it is (now) her money, it is her decision, so it sounds like your beef is with her. It always seemed like Burt was living the life he wanted to live.

Rusty
Reply

Pam,

I don’t think his words represented what he actually felt. I detected a great sadness in him, a disappointment in life or humanity or both. I think the “I didn’t want it anyway” remarks were a defense mechanism that he used to hide his true feelings. I’ve done that myself, things like “Oh, I really didn’t want that promotion anyway” when I was actually desperately disappointed. I don’t think the money would have made him any happier, but I think the recognition, the offer, would have.

Rusty
Reply

Dian,

So interesting, but I’m not surprised. I kept thinking that place looked like a fire waiting to happen.

Jim Withers
Reply

I am a lover of bees and being a beekeeper. I was hoping to find in this movie someone whose passion was like mine. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I didn’t see in Burt, or from anyone else for that matter, any particular passion for the life form that has provided such wealth for them. Money, money, money. Everything good, it seems, becomes a fad and ends up being exploited for how much money can be squeezed out of it….Honey Flow, anyone?

I’m happy for the attention being paid to the difficult circumstances we beekeepers and our bees find ourselves in these days. I’m happy to see the renewed interest in beekeeping by people that genuinely have a passion for nature. I’m especially happy that many have become financially successful because of that passion. It just bothers me to see so many wonderful things become monetized by our corporate culture and lost in the mad dash for cash.

Okay, Rusty. I’ll climb down off my high horse now.

Nel
Reply

I really enjoyed this documentary. Burt loves nature, the bees, his dog, and a simple life. I do feel he was treated unfairly, but he held little anger for what happened. He seems to be able to be “in the moment” and not stuck in the past or with regrets.

It appeared that Roxanne took full advantage of his nature by offering him a “quick” deal that was unreasonable. His image continues to sell this product.. Glad to know the story. I did feel sad for Bert.

Rich
Reply

There are relevant facts missing necessary to form an opinion. For example, because of the five year separation between Burt’s buyout and the AEA deal valuing the company at $173 million, we can only guess at the value of the company in 1999. The value of an enterprise can change dramatically in five years. Also relevant is Quimby’s perception of its value at the time of the offer to Burt, which can be gleaned from profit levels, revenue growth, cash balances, etc. Another unknown is how the enterprise was organized and whether ownership was 50% each.

But assuming the enterprise was worth several million, and Quimby’s assessment of its value was somewhat realistic, I would argue that a good legal strategy would be for Burt to threaten to file a cause of action seeking rescission due to undue influence. It might be a weak case, again depending on facts on which we can only speculate, but these kinds of fact patterns sometimes actually change our case law, expanding criteria for concepts like undue influence. Quimby would face the dilemma that many civil defendants face; pay a few million to settle or take a perhaps small risk of losing many times more than the settlement cost. For example, I would not take a 5% chance of losing $100 million at trial to avoid a $5 million settlement for a business partner that felt cheated and had a reasonable basis for that conclusion. Doing that would violate Quimby’s business sense, I think.

Another test for emotional bias is thinking about how we would feel if the gender roles were reversed. Imagine a man doing to a woman lover what Quimby did to Burt. Most of us would be screaming of the emotional and financial abuse that the man inflicted on the woman. You would have a good argument. Why is this different?

There is another problem for Burt; the statute of limitations for a claim in contract is often a few years, depending on the state. Burt’s lawyer probably could not wait for the sale to AEA to file. The much greater value of the enterprise would have to be fairly easy to discern at the time of Burt’s contract execution in 1999 to an expert or accountant, but not understood by Burt. If Burt knew that the value of the company was very high in 1999, then there is a good argument that the contract would have been more difficult to attack, assuming his interest was half prior to signing.

The lesson here is already know a good lawyer and hire that lawyer before signing important contracts. Had Burt told Quimby he wanted to delay signing pending consultation with his lawyer, I will bet Quimby would have presented another higher offer immediately. That occurring is always a sign money was left at the table.

Lawyers spend much time studying the law in school, but very little time studying negotiation skills and conflict strategy. Sometimes you have to go to many lawyers to find one that understands the problem and is willing to fight for you. Burt should have visited a whole bunch of lawyers if he sought help within the statute of limitations.

Dave
Reply

I feel the same way as Rusty.

I would love get her side of it though,Seems like there is a whole lot more to it than we know.It seems like his heart was broken in more ways than one.

Mitch
Reply

I have not seen this, but have loosely followed the story of Burt’s Bees for sometime. Probably just as much from the rise of the business, as from my interest in bees, as this story comes up often when talking to others about stories of people rising up and becoming successful. I will be watching this soon.

I would think Burt is being honest if he said “I didn’t want it anyway”. The truth is more likely that now he regrets that decision and then having acted on it, which is sad. But you do have to consider that a $130,000 for use of your likeness is not exactly a bad payday.

Pedro
Reply

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie or even heard about the company before this.

I read Rusty’s post and the comments so far. And I have to say that the legal or business side of it is, for me, not at all a justification for the lady’s behaviour towards his starting partner. I don’t like the idea that greed should be more valued that doing what – for me, of course – would be the right thing, and that is paying a fair price for the help she received when starting the business.

I don’t care about contracts or legal issues. I find her behaviour as that of a not nice person. That she started a company of ‘wholesome’ beauty products is beyond ironic.

For me it’s a bit like saying that in a divorce the spouse who stayed home and didn’t want the partner to work so hard shouldn’t get a fair share of the income once they divorce because it was the partner that did ‘all the work’. Just not good enough.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,

I think I get it. In 20 years of growing herbs and veg for market, I can’t count the times someone has urged me to “brand my product” or similar self-promoting jargon. They say, “The real money is in marketing.”
Wouldn’t you hate it if someone said that about your bees and your honey? It makes me feel as though my land, my bond with it and my labor and knowledge are not valued, when I have worked hard to have and protect them.
At million-dollar volume I am sure the lady long since got past the stage of lovingly crafting soaps and lotions with her own little hands from Burt’s fine natural hive products. His image and work ethic were being used to “market” what had nothing to do with him or what mattered to him. Sad.

Nan
PS I would totally take $10 mil, and just pay off all my friends’ farm mortgages.

Melinda
Reply

Burt’s life isn’t one I would choose, but it is what he chose. He has much more than he would have had if Roxanne hadn’t come along. How they split things up is up to them. I don’t know why anyone bothers judging their choices. Burt doesn’t seem to be unhappy with the situation. He seems to just be who he is. The movie is slow, rather boring and not much about bees. I would rather see a movie about Roxanne, a woman living in a tent with children, working hard to make something out of a little bee operation.

John Leeper, Beekeeper
Reply

Yes it’s all about contracts but it’s also about fairness and ethics…and greed. The right thing to do is obvious.

Erika
Reply

I took away the same feeling that it was more about his disappointment in life/humanity. The sad part for me wasn’t the money–though it did frustrate me that she didn’t at least think to look out for him better when he looked out for her all those years ago by getting her started. The sad part was that it seemed he had truly loved her and felt betrayed by all that had happened. When he met her, I think he believed they were on the same course. Two people living simply and making just enough off of the bees to pay for what they needed. I think he was very mistaken about her, and that’s the part I found really sad.

Like you, Rusty, I sensed that his “I didn’t want it anyway” comments covered up the deeply profound sense of loss that he felt–for her, not money or business opportunities. He obviously had the talents and business sense to be successful if he wanted. He ran parts of her business in NC until she cut him out. He lost her to the busy corporate, money-grubbing culture. In the end, he loved her and she turned out to be the epitome of the society he had chosen (and probably thought they had mutually chosen) to leave behind. Stories of broken hearts are always sad, even if he had ended up with lots of her money.

cgrey8
Reply

I guess the thing that’s disappointed me the most is how easily people felt sorry for Burt, formed hatred for the “rich” person in the story to the point of playing the way-overused “greed” card, and did so based purely off the info as presented in the documentary without giving any thought to whether there was bias in the info as presented or even considering that there is a “her side” to the story. To be fair to the documentary, it wasn’t about her. So I wouldn’t have expected it to delve into her side of the story. But I did hope viewers would realize there is a “her side” to the story they weren’t being given that deserves consideration before forming conclusions.

Beegirl
Reply

He was exploited, but seems to enjoy a happy existence. Our bees that have been exploited by the agricultural industry are not so lucky.

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