Small Business

After Burt's Bees, What?


Roxanne Quimby talks about gearing up for a three-part second act after selling her booming natural personal-care products business

As far as success stories go, Roxanne Quimby, the entrepreneur behind the wildly successful Burt's Bees, is one for the books. Quimby was a divorced mother of twin girls, living without electricity on a farm in central Maine, when she met local beekeeper Burt Shavitz in 1984.

Shavitz was selling honey at a roadside stand. Soon the pair became both romantic and business partners. Quimby retooled Shavitz' wares, putting the honey in beehive-shaped designs with handmade labels and selling them at craft fairs.

Not long after, Quimby also began selling handcrafted beeswax candles that she made in her kitchen. Burt's Bees continued to grow, and Quimby eventually created a line of 150 natural skin and body products, driving the company's sales to $50 million.

In 2003, Quimby sold 80% of the company (by then Shavitz had retired, and she had bought him out) to AEA Investors, a private equity firm, for an estimated $175 million (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/7/06, "Burt's Bee's: Up From Craft Fairs").

Now, Quimby, who divides her time between Maine and Florida, is poised for a three-part second act. This year she debuted happygreenbee.com, an organic cotton clothing company for children and infants based in Raleigh, NC, and Seaside Partners, a real estate development firm that renovates and sells high-end properties in Portland, Me., and Palm Beach, Fla. Next year she plans to open a cooking vacation school and bed and breakfast in Winter Harbor, Me.

Recently, BusinessWeek.com staff writer Stacy Perman spoke with Quimby about getting started again. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Do you feel pressure to succeed having already had such a successful first business?

I do. I think I've raised the bar for myself. I think that I am being watched more carefully. The first time I was in startup phase, I was a total unknown and invisible, so I had a bit of latitude, and the only expectations I had were for myself. In some ways that was a blessing. I could stumble and not disappoint anybody.

What are your aims with these particular businesses?

With the real estate business—besides making money—I believe that these are important properties that deserve to be improved. I am taking the environment into consideration where they are located, and I am being sensitive to the local vernacular.

A lot of these old homes are being torn down to make way for bigger, better properties, but a lot of [them] are really well-built and have another 100 years of use left in them. That is my operating agenda; I am trying to give older places a new life.

Happygreenbee.com is a consumer products company. We use only organically grown cotton, and I am hoping to educate consumers about the importance of using organic crops and how reducing the use of insecticides and pesticides benefits the environment.

The cooking school is a lifestyle business. I'm looking to create a business that will eventually be operated by an entrepreneur who loves food and Maine. I want to sell it in five years, but first I have to demonstrate a positive income statement and balance sheet and show that this business can pay for itself.

Are your goals this time around different than when you launched Burt's Bees?

In many ways they are the same. They all have to make sense to me from a value point of view. For instance, the cooking school will only use local, organic food, and we will take students out to the farms to see how food is created organically.

I think that Burt's Bees was driven by desperation. In the early years, I had two little kids and there were no jobs for me [where I lived.] I started Burt's Bees out of necessity to create a job for myself—that was my first goal. I don't have the same necessity in starting these businesses. I can be a bit more relaxed and strategize.

So then, how is it launching startups at this stage in your life and career?

[Starting Burt's Bees] I was so incredibly driven by necessity and hardship to create a living for myself and the people I employed that I was very tense and very anxious. I never knew one day to the other if we would survive. Even after we matured and every outward measure was a success, I was never completely assured things would be OK.

I compare this to parenting. There is so much anxiety and lack of experience you never feel competent. The second business is like having a second child; the parents are more relaxed and believe that it will be OK, because you can draw on experience from the first one.

I have a lot more perspective now. There are certain predictable issues that come up, and I am not freaking out about them the way I used to when something came up. [I think to myself,] it's not a life or death situation, we can get through this.

By all accounts, you certainly don't need to launch another business, given the success of Burt's Bees. What is your motivation for doing so?

I'm an industrious person by nature. I have the energy level of an artist and craftsperson. My real satisfaction comes through production. I like to make things and see if what I made is approved in the marketplace.

It's not about money, even Burt's Bees was not about money—it was about pride in accomplishment. What I learned along the way was that money was a byproduct of making the right decisions more often than the wrong ones. That was the score, so to speak.

What would you say are the biggest lessons you learned from Burt's Bees?

I learned how to be a good negotiator and get to yes, so that a project could move forward instead of disintegrating into disagreement. It serves me with my environmental work, and in normal relationships with people.

Everybody has to win. I believe that. You will never make progress unless you fully take into consideration your opponent or adversary's point of view and make sure their needs are met.

Given your track record, is it easier this time around?

It's a little easier, because I know some of the steps to take. I don't have to stumble to become aware. I am able to avoid some of the mistakes I made the first time around. [For example,] I know about getting trademarks registered before going on the market and incorporating before starting the business.

Are the challenges different?

There is still the normal difficulty of running a business and creating a product that has market acceptance and people who are willing to pay for it. That is a challenge no matter what business you are in—there is unpredictably and necessary experimentation.

Obviously, that creates failures, but you have to go out there and take a risk or it's not going to work. I feel like I am always pushing myself onto unfamiliar territory, and that is always scary.

Does it ever get less scary?

I don't think so. There is the element of the unknown, and the unknown is scary no matter how many times you've been out there. You don't know the outcome; you can have intuition about things, but there are no guarantees.

What keeps you going?

The thrill. It has nothing to do with pursuing material comforts—that is not so important to me. But proving myself by going out on the edge to see what I am capable of is really important. Business is my proving ground. It is what I love to do. Just like a sport.


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