February 6, 2015

Burt's Buzz

Jody Shapiro, 2014
The image of Burt on the Burt's Bees product line is arguably as identifiable as Colonel Sanders, Mr. clean, or perhaps even Ronald McDonald. We see the bearded etched face when we check out at the grocery store, where the Burt's yellow circular lip balm container is placed below the latest gossip mag telling you about the most recent celebrity divorce or plastic surgery mishap. And while the innocent face of Burt contradicts the face of a Kardashian sister, the company itself is not without its own drama.

Burt Shavitz,  a reclusive Hippie from Maine, started his business on a very small scale by managing a handful of beehives upstate and selling honey by the gallon on the roadside. It wasn't until he met fellow hippie / earthchild Roxanne Quimby that the company branched out into the personal care realm. Burt exposed Roxanne to an old book about the many benefits of using honey and beeswax, and she took the ball and ran with it. Unfortunately as Roxanne took on more of a role in the company, things between her and Burt turned sour. Burt was pushed into selling his stake of the company in 1993. Burt wasn't able to benefit from the future purchase of the company by a private equity firm that made Roxanne a multimillionaire.

Burt's Buzz is similar to the 2010 documentary Candyman about Jelly Belly Jelly Bean creator David Klein. Klein, another quirky innovator, had a naivete when it came to business and was pushed out of his company and not rightfully compensated for it. In Candyman Klein doesn't come off as a completely bitter man, spending every waking second trying to get his revenge. Nor does Burt. Burt sought a lawyer after the purchase of the company, hoping to get a piece of the pie but was too late to the party. You get a sense this was more on principle rather than greed. Burt isn't a person very interested in money. He is not a man built for the 21st century corporate culture. He is more inclined to spend his time out in the field with his dog. And Shapiro doesn't set out to paint Roxanne as a calculating villainous figure set out to cheat Burt out of his business. It's just a part of the Burt's story that you kind of have to mention. A lot of business relationships are complicated and often don't end particularly well. Roxanne possessed the ambition that Burt just doesn't have, and basically admits to. You could easily see that if Roxanne never scaled the Burt's brand to the mega-company that it ultimately became, we wouldn't have the shampoo in our shower or the lip balm in our pockets. The movie doesn't have big moments and doesn't take many risks but it does paint an interesting portrait of the man on the package.

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