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How one woman turned a roadside honey stand into a multimillion-dollar business

Chances are, the lip balm in your purse wasn't made by a woman who hauled her own water for 20 years before making a foray into the personal-care industry. Unless it's Burt's Bees. But then, perhaps "industry" is too strong a word for the initial entrepreneurial ventures of Roxanne Quimby, who started Burt's Bees with the help of Burt Shavitz and his bees in Maine 15 years ago. As start-ups go, this one was more Dickensian than most: "We filled the first lip balms from a teapot heated on the stove, in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse," says Quimby, whose business now occupies a vast, brand-new warehouse in Research Triangle Park.

Quimby, president of the company, met Shavitz, now retired, after moving to a small town north of Bangor, Maine, in the mid '70s. "I got radicalized in California in the '60s, and went to Maine with $300 in my pocket after I got out of school." She built what she calls a "camp" on a few acres of land and lived there without running water or electricity for the next 20 years. When she met Shavitz, she had young twin boys and was working two waitress jobs. "Burt was one of the guys who sold things on the side of the road," Quimby says. "I'd see him out there with the fish guy on Fridays and the guy who sold corn when corn was in season." Shavitz sold honey in unmarked canning jars--until Quimby got him to use those bear-shaped squeeze bottles, designed a label, and doubled the price. "It had a nice country look," she says, "which people in big cities really went for. No one in Maine liked it, of course."

They started selling the honey in Boston, and Quimby started looking through recipes in old beekeeping journals for things to do with the enormous store of beeswax that the bees had compounded over the years. "We made candles, shoe polish, little ornaments," she says, "but when we started making the lip balm, things really took off."

Within a few years, Quimby and Shavitz had filled several 18-wheelers with their stock, moved out of the schoolhouse and into town, and had over 40 employees, all "welfare moms," as Quimby describes them. "We did everything by hand," she says, working in two shifts over a 16-hour workday. In an Appalachian area marked primarily by fading textile mills and intense poverty, Burt's Bees was the second-largest industry in the county. Nearly all the company's profits came from sales in New York and Los Angeles.

In 1994, after repeatedly petitioning the state of Maine for help with the growing business, Quimby made the decision to move Burt's Bees elsewhere. She is candid about the difficulty of taking a growing industry from the community and workers that had made it successful, but she couldn't foresee a future for the company there. "Maine is simply a very difficult place to start a business," she says, "and perhaps that's why there is so little new industry there. It was a very hard decision to make, but costs were becoming prohibitive."

North Carolina, on the other hand, has the drill pretty much down, and when Quimby began asking around about relocating her business, the state's Tourism and Commerce Board promptly rolled out the red carpet.

"You wouldn't believe how they treated us," Quimby tells me. "We got off the plane [for a tour], Burt in his Birkenstocks and wild hair, and that man [from the commerce board] didn't even blink. He drove us around in a state car for three days, and in every town the entire chamber of commerce was waiting on the front steps of the municipal building for us." Quimby and Shavitz looked at a few other places: Tennessee, Florida and New Hampshire, but North Carolina was the best choice: centrally located on the East Coast, with a good labor pool and tax incentives for growing businesses.

Roxanne is clearly a canny businesswoman, but she also seems honestly committed to the principles on which she started the company. And she has retained an earnest idealism about her products and her mission as Burt's Bees has become a multi-million dollar company. "I learned a lot of lessons, living like I did in Maine. Nature is a closed loop--nothing's wasted. In our society today, women are disposable--discarded after a certain age. It's not hard to keep to the natural standards I've set for this company because I believe in them. I understand the consumer because I am she."

And so, apparently, am I, or so Chuck Friedman, the Burt's Bees chemist, tells me when I arrive to take a tour of the manufacturing plant. Having outgrown its facilities on U.S. 70 in Raleigh, the company is in the middle of a move to the new, much larger space in RTP. Friedman is wearing booties on his feet, like a surgeon, and a little bonnet, cafeteria-lady style, on his head. He waits while I put on booties and a bonnet of my own. Friedman, who worked for the heavy-hitters in the cosmetic industry before coming to work for Quimby, has a sort of untempered, post-Revlon enthusiasm about his work with Burt's Bees: It's as though he were recovering from a long stint in a doomsday cult.

"You are our target market," he tells me excitedly as I follow him through towering stacks of cardboard boxes. "If you worked here, I would seek you out for product evaluation." All product testing and feedback is done in-house, with panels of employees who fill out survey sheets about the color, smell, consistency and function of new products. Quimby and Friedman have a symbiotic sort of arrangement in product development: Quimby provides much of the creative inspiration and Friedman refines the ideas into viable and feasible products.

"In the beginning, Roxanne thought of beeswax as the building block of every product," Friedman tells me. "I was able to show her that there were a few other options out there." The manufacturing room smells like the soap aisle in Wellspring, an unsorted, heady mélange of camphor and honey and orange and eucalyptus. I realize the raison d'être of the booties: The floor is slick with vegetable oil, a chief ingredient in many products. We slide over to look at a little conveyer belt, aluminum bottles above it in a holding pen, waiting to be filled. A hot bathtub-sized tank of yellowish liquid squirts into tins: hand salve.

Next to a barrel of glycerin nearly as large as I am, Friedman weighs me on an industrial-sized scale. "You must be very dense," he tells me politely as my weight in kilograms appears on the screen. In a small adjacent room, a large man in a white coat sits bent over a desk in the corner. Friedman is Research and Development and the guy in the corner is Quality Control. The room is pleasantly chaotic and ad hoc. A KitchenAid blender sits next to a beaker that steams on a small stove. Green drops of something have hardened on the counter. I ask Friedman what the weirdest ingredient they use is, and he shows me a container of glistening rust-colored paste. "Orange wax," he says in a reverent tone. "From the peel. Emollient and stabilizing properties. I didn't even know this existed."

Burt's Bees currently has more than 150 products, the result of five years' concerted effort on the product-development front. Because of the "all-natural" edict, there are certain things the company can't make: shampoo, for one, and hair spray. I mention that I had thought about trying the Burt's Bees dry shampoo I had seen, a powder that absorbs oil from the hair. "Well, definitely let us know what you think," Quality Control puts in from the corner, "that's from our dog line."

Friedman squirts some clove-scented lotion on my arm and engages me in a thoughtful discussion of lipids. In an industry not known for its moral fiber, Burt's Bees has an almost saintly conscience about its products, which amount to little miracles: no artificial or irresponsibly harvested ingredients, no animal testing, no sweatshop labor. And the work pays off: The stuff I smell and rub on myself is delicious, one step away from rolling in fresh fruit. On the wall hangs a framed page from Health Magazine: The Orange Essence Facial Cleanser won healthiest cleanser of the year in 1999.

With its sparkling new digs in RTP, Burt's Bees has become a bona fide member of the Triangle's burgeoning industrial community. Quimby's "small-business goal," as she puts it, was to make $20 million by the year 2000, and this year the company expects to gross exactly that much. Her original ideals seem to have come of age in lockstep with her business. Burt's Bees recently made a donation of $2 million towards a land acquisition fund the Nature Conservancy has set up in Maine--Quimby's way of tending to the place she left. "It's funny, but if I had stayed in Maine, I wouldn't have $2 million to give them."

Quimby's insistence that her company behave responsibly is a comfortable echo of the reason for its inception. "I got into this business essentially because of my kids. I had an enormous sense of responsibility towards them, to be able to give them more than just my time." Perhaps it was all those years of hauling water, perhaps the California education, but she has managed to have the tenacity and the vision to do a very tricky thing: build a business selling what she believes in. It's a good addition to RTP, wholesome, realistic and thriving.

Leaving the new plant, I drive down a paved road still red with clay from the recent construction, anemic pine saplings, thinly spaced along the grassless median. A sign on the cleared plot across the way announces the upcoming arrival of a cell-phone company. I'm sweet-smelling and softened, my 100 percent post-consumer recycled-plastic lip balm in pocket like a little beeswax talisman. EndBlock

More by Lauren Wilcox

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