Roxanne Quimby just wants to go home.
The cofounder and CEO of Burt’s Bees lives in Maine but works in North Carolina, and she is weary of the 1,000-mile commute. Home is, after all, home. Specifically, home is a humble 1,200-square-foot house in Winter Harbor, three hours northeast of Portland up the Atlantic coast, known locally as “the mushroom” for its peculiar shape.
When you are at home in a place you love, powerful things can happen. Last January, Quimby was relaxing in Winter Harbor, taking in Governor John Baldacci’s first postinaugural radio interview. Baldacci was asked about a long-standing plan to create a new national park in Maine’s scenic North Woods. His reply was so stark, so blunt, it left Quimby breathless. The park, he said, was “a nonstarter.”
Baldacci might as well have been standing in Quimby’s living room, addressing her by name. For three years, she has been the single most energetic backer of the controversial park proposal. “I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt until 24 hours into his administration,” Quimby says, her green eyes flashing, “but after that, I turned him off and said, ‘Okay, he’s in trouble now!’ “
He may well be. Quimby, 53, who favors Crayola-bright cotton blouses and schoolgirl-style hair clips, doesn’t look the part of a fiery agent of social change. But for three decades, she has quietly built a career and a life on what amounts to fearless radicalism. In the name of simplicity, she chose to live in incredible austerity in the woods. Then she founded Burt’s Bees, a company dedicated to selling natural, environment-friendly personal-care products, which in the past 14 years has grown from a pot on her wood-burning kitchen stove to a nearly $50 million-per-year business.
Now she is steering a new course–one that would take her from politically minded commerce into the mainstream of politics itself. Since 2001, she has spent $8 million of her own fortune to buy huge parcels of undeveloped land in northern Maine–nearly 16,000 acres in all–toward what she and other park backers hope will total 3.2 million acres. She has just inked a deal to sell a controlling stake in Burt’s Bees to buyout firm AEA Investors to help finance the park effort and perhaps fund a nascent political career. The upshot: Come 2006, Roxanne Quimby could be running for governor.
In a way, she is following a well-worn path. For centuries, businesspeople have lent their influence and wealth to political causes, satisfying both ego and conscience. With Quimby, though, it’s something more personal. She is selling a company to which she has dedicated every waking hour for more than a decade, a company that reflects her philosophy both of living and of how business should be done. More than just a professional sacrifice, selling Burt’s Bees is tantamount to stepping out of her own skin. She knows, too, that relinquishing control puts the future of the company at risk.
But so it must be. Roxanne Quimby is determined to leave a greater legacy than just a fabulous recipe for milk-and-honey lotion. Land is power, and a new national park represents something powerful. As Quimby sees it, the entire state of Maine is on the cusp of a do-or-die moment. Its paper-and-pulp mills are struggling, and some 5 million acres of forestland have been sold in the past five years. Land ownership is splintering and thousands of Mainers have lost their jobs. A national park, she believes, “would solve three big problems in Maine: conservation, recreation, and the economy.” And it would bring her home, in any number of ways.
A Life Without Compromise
Quimby was 25 when she first came to Maine in the early 1970s, shortly after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute. She used her life’s savings of $3,000 to buy 30 acres just outside the town of Guilford and, with her then boyfriend, George St. Clair, she built a cabin in the woods. At the time, her intent was simple enough: to live in self-sufficient harmony with the land, like a pioneer, without running water or electricity.
For a young woman born into middle-class comfort in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and raised in the leafy suburbs of Connecticut, it was a radical break. Her father was an engineer and a Harvard MBA; her mother, a homemaker. But Quimby, the eldest of four children, was the artistically talented star of the family, a free spirit who made trinkets and then sold them to neighbors for pocket money.
She blossomed in San Francisco–and then rebelled. Burning with desire to live her ideals to the fullest, she spurned the status quo as soon as she graduated. “I didn’t want a career,” she says. “I didn’t want a job. I didn’t want to employ any skills–I was just rejecting it all!” Except the call to experience the sublime. Deeply inspired by the essays of naturalist Henry David Thoreau, she took her own vow of simplicity, put aside the trappings of materialism, and drove all the way to Maine. “I truly believed,” she says, “that the only way I could live a life that didn’t compromise the things I didn’t want to compromise was [to live] in a very rural setting.”
She learned quickly that Maine is not California. “It was always 20 below,” Quimby recalls now. She and St. Clair–whom she later married–worked feverishly to survive. Lacking electricity, they had to cut and split their own firewood by hand to heat the cabin and boil water. Within a few years, twin babies arrived, and the task of simple living became more complex. Quimby would fetch freezing water from the stream, heat it on the woodstove, wash diapers by hand, and then pin them to the clothesline, “where they’d immediately freeze-dry stiff as boards.”
Isolation, hard work, and poverty took their toll, and the marriage eventually ended. Quimby and her husband sold the land and split the proceeds. The break didn’t shake Quimby’s faith in her low-impact lifestyle. She simply bought 30 more acres, built another cabin, and started all over again. But as her children grew, she says she felt increasingly obliged to provide them with a good education–just as her parents had offered her. So she began looking for ways to make money beyond waitressing, and in 1984, she met local beekeeper Burt Shavitz.
Shavitz taught her the art of keeping bees, and before long, Quimby was experimenting with uses for beeswax. The fragrant, translucent raw material inspired her, and suddenly–in her mid-30s–the artist within her reawoke. Soon, she was stirring hot wax on her woodstove, dipping candles by hand, and selling them at crafts fairs. She discovered a recipe book of 19th-century balms–everything from boot wax to saddle polish–and began to cook up all kinds of potions, rubs, and salves.
At the outset, Quimby had no idea what would sell. “I’d lived without money for so long,” she says, “I had no idea what people bought or didn’t buy, so I was forced to watch people closely and see how they made decisions.” Her own detachment from any kind of conventional materialism became the source of strategic wisdom. “Very few people seem to be able to remove their own desires from their vision of what the consumer wants,” she says, “and so they miss it.” Even more important, she found that those needs often go unexpressed and have to be intuited. “By the time a consumer is able to vocalize a need,” she says, “I think it’s already too late.”
Inevitably, for Quimby, some of those needs touch on politics. Pick up any Burt’s Bees product, and you can tell: This comes from a woman who still believes that the best-lived life hurts the planet as little as possible. She has always insisted on using recycled materials, and almost all product packaging is itself recyclable. Every product Burt’s Bees makes, from skin moisturizers to facial scrubs, is made from at least 90% natural ingredients.
Quimby’s purist approach has proven lucrative. In 2002, sales grew by almost 30% to $43.5 million, and Quimby expects another 30% increase in 2003. Pleased as she is by her company’s success, though, Quimby has never been particularly attached to it. “I guess I wanted to see if I could do it because the odds were all against me,” she says. “But I was never that interested in it; it’s more like a game.” Part of her desire to run for governor comes from wanting to find her own internal edge again, to push herself back out into the wilderness and to explore new terrain. “It’s like going into the unknown,” she says. “If you’re afraid of that, you’re going to get stuck.”
For the past two years, too, she has felt increasingly squeezed by the demands of her double life. She has shuttled uncomfortably between her beloved mushroom of a house in Maine and her company’s headquarters in Durham, North Carolina, where she camps out in an executive hotel. “It’s very schizophrenic, and–especially as I get older–I just see this as completely unsustainable,” she says. “I look at my suitcase and think, My God, that’s probably what I look like.” For a woman so deeply connected to her physical home, she spends a lot of time away from it. This, she knows, must change soon.
Time to Raise Some Hell
Maine has never had a female governor, much less one like Quimby. But both its current state senators are female, and it was one of the earliest states in the country to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate. “Maine people don’t get too stuck in stereotypes,” Quimby says. “They don’t think that politicians have to be middle-aged men in blue suits and ties.”
But some do get stuck on the question of origin. There are those who were born and raised in the state–“Mainers,” in local parlance, who live there year-round braving snow, sleet, and subzero temperatures–and then there’s everyone else. If you fall into the “outsider” demographic, you may be excluded by many Mainers for consideration for certain opportunities. The governorship, say.
Despite her 30-odd years of residence in the state, Quimby has inspired resentment among the locals. One reason is because she had the poor judgment to be born in Massachusetts. The other, more crucial reason, is because she moved her company and its 40 jobs to North Carolina in 1994. At the time, she claimed she couldn’t hire enough staff in Guilford, where Burt’s Bees had been headquartered. No matter. To many residents, she’s still a turncoat–an outsider who became an insider then abandoned her adopted community. Somehow, they seem to forget that she has lived in Winter Harbor all along. “Message from northern Maine to Quimby,” wrote Eugene Conlogue, town manager for Millinocket, in a letter to the Bangor Daily News, “Leave us and our way of life alone.”
Quimby is having none of it. She knows that way of life firsthand, and she has no intention of letting a few local graybeards’ knee-jerk reactions slow her down. She has a characteristic defense ready on the question of origin. “There are people saying, ‘Just because a cat has her kittens in the oven, you can’t call ’em biscuits,’ ” she says. “But my ancestors were from Maine way before the Civil War, so I don’t care what anyone says.”
If she launches a gubernatorial campaign, Quimby says, she probably will run as a Maine Green Independent Party candidate. While the Green Party numbers just 16,000 members statewide, the most recent Green gubernatorial candidate, Jonathan Carter, took 9% of the vote in 2002. Quimby, controversial as she is, has at least as high a profile in a state with just 1.2 million residents.
But to run, Quimby needs money, which is one reason she has sold a stake in Burt’s Bees. The decision was a careful one. Quimby looked for an outside investor with plenty of capital to commit,but with no immediate plan to fold Burt’s Bees into a larger entity. She wanted a buyer who could ease her management burden–and her travel–while allowing her to stay as CEO for now. After lengthy discussions, AEA won her trust. Although Quimby won’t confirm the exact figure, the deal reportedly was worth $180 million. It was set to close in early November.
Her wish to step away may seem surprising, but she never intended to enter the corporate world; Quimby wanted to solve all her political issues by living close to the land. Paradoxically, her love of nature and its raw ingredients have made her rich–and afforded her the resources she needs now to go home and raise some hell.
To date, Quimby has made no announcement of a run for the governorship. But the mere possibility that she might run has won the attention of the Baldacci administration. While the governor’s press office chose not to respond to interview requests, Quimby says she has begun meeting regularly with Baldacci’s commissioner of conservation and the head of inland fisheries. She has been approached by the administration about the possibility of helping the state preserve some choice acreage currently on the market.
So without even running, before a vote has been cast, Quimby is making her voice heard. She’s throwing some weight around. “Almost single-handedly, she has changed the dynamic here,” says Jym St. Pierre, Maine director of Restore, which has worked on the park campaign. This delights Quimby. Ultimately, it is political efficacy–and a profound desire to leave a lasting legacy for all Mainers–that motivates her.
To Quimby, being a good steward of the environment is no less than a political mandate. She believes, above all, that she owes her financial success to doing just that. “And if I stop being a good steward, it’ll probably be over in a flash,” she says.
Will she run? Can she win? She thinks she’d stand a pretty good chance. And no matter what the cost, it would be worth it just for the opportunity to stir things up.
Loch Adamson (email@example.com) is a writer in New York.