“Bert and I” made Maine famous for Downeast humor, but Burt and Tom made Maine famous for hippie health-care products.

Burt Shavitz of Burt’s Bees fame should be an inspiration to those who still pick up hitchhikers, and to all the home crafters who slave over soaps and candles and give up their weekends to sell at craft fairs.  His story should also serve as a warning to men about the wrath of a woman scorned.

Shavitz was born Ingram Berg Shavitz to a Jewish family in Manhattan. After graduating high school in 1953, he Americanized his first name to Burt, while keeping the old family surname. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he served in the U.S. Army and then became a photographer, taking gritty pictures of New York that appeared in Time and Life magazines.

But Shavitz felt called by the simpler life, and moved to Maine to grow a beard and enjoy a hippie lifestyle. A friend gave him some beekeeping equipment, and he found a colony of bees living in a fence post. Soon he was selling honey on the side of the road.

Then, one fateful day, he picked up a hitchhiker named Roxanne Quimby. An artist and former ’60s radical, Quimby became Shavitz’s lover and business partner, making candles from his leftover beeswax.  Their first profit came from a craft fair in Dover Foxcroft, where they made $200. Working from a recipe in an old farmer’s almanac, Quimby developed the Bert’s Bees lip balm in 1991 that would become the company’s bestselling product.

A few years later, in 1994, Shavitz allegedly had an affair with an employee. Quimby was not amused and Shavitz said she forced him out of the company, giving him $130,000 for his share of the business. Ten years later, an investment firm paid $173 million for 80% of the company, and Clorox bought it in 2007 for almost a billion dollars. Shavitz sought compensation, and eventually received $4 million.

Considering his name and bearded face are still plastered on the company’s products, it seems a paltry sum. Shavitz was not materialistic, however, and lived in a converted Maine chicken coop with no TV and little in the way of creature comforts. He died in 2015 at 80 years of age.

Tom’s of Maine had a similar beginning. According to the company website, Tom and Kate Chappell moved to Maine from Pennsylvania in 1968 so they could raise their children in a more natural environment.  Tom had worked in his father’s detergent factory and decided to invent a phosphate-free detergent that would be more environmentally friendly.  He launched his business, “Tom’s Natural Soaps,” with a $5,000 loan.

The company’s most popular product came in 1975:  an all-natural toothpaste flavored with herbs and spices and free from chemical additives or artificial sweeteners.  This became a big seller at natural food stores and co-ops.  The toothpaste factory was an old train station in Kennebunk.  Tom added fluoride to his toothpaste in 1978, and changed the company name to “Tom’s of Maine” in 1981.

As an anti-capitalist who had become a successful capitalist, Tom sought to quell his discomfort by earning a theology degree at Harvard Divinity College.  The company began to tithe 10% of its profits to humanitarian causes, and Tom wrote a book called “The Soul of a Business:  Managing for Profit and the Public Good.”

Like Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine was eventually sold to a conglomerate for a huge sum.  In this case, Colgate paid $100 million for an 84% stake.  I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking about starting my own Maine natural product business.  To quote Alan Jackson, “I don’t believe in money, but a man could make him a killin’.”


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