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A Maine Buzz at the movies

06/13/2014

 

When a old, bushy-bearded beekeeper picked up an ambitious single mom hitchhiking outside Bangor, Maine 30 years ago he didn’t mean to launch a multi-million dollar, international lip-balm business.

But he did.

Jen and I watched the fascinating documentary “Burt’s Buzz” at the Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis earlier this week. We had to:  It was made for anyone who lives in Maine, loves Maine, or uses the popular, earth-friendly  Burt’s Bees skin care products.

“Burt’s Buzz” is about Burt Shavitz, a former Life Magazine photographer, who drops out of the New York City rat race in the 1970s and finds his way to the  Maine woods where he raises a barn full of bees. He lives in a one-room cabin, “doesn’t like anyone” and sells honey from a yellow pick-up parked on the highway.

Shavitz makes enough money to feed his two dogs and keep his wood burning stove warm. That’s all he really wants.

But then he meets Roxanne Quimby, a pretty woman who abandoned her life in Massachusetts and is raising two children like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Except Quimby has a keen sense for sales and marketing and learns how to make a buck with bees wax. Thousand and thousands of bucks.

And to anyone who knows Maine, this is where the film turns into a lesson about its sad business climate.

Quimby turns the bees wax into candles, soap and lip balm. She uses Shavitz and his iconic beard, red flannel shirts and idyllic cabin view as a major marketing tool.

It works.

Burt’s Bees products are a hit with the organic food crowd, the earth friendly movement and an overseas market eager for good, old-fashioned Americana. The company grows so fast it must move from a makeshift headquarters in an abandon rural church.

But does Burt’s Bees stay in Maine?

No.

Burt’s Bees moves to a Creedmoor, North Carolina technology park.

Quimby says the the state’s meager work force, high taxes and remote location led to the move. It’s hard to argue. Maine population is aging faster than most states, leading to higher government expenses. Young people leave the state looking forward to big city life. With few large industries to add jobs and attract new residents, Maine taxes have nowhere to go but up. This leads its economy into a downward spiral.

“But why couldn’t (Burt’s Bees) follow the LL Bean model?” asked a Maine friend recently. The clothing retailer appears to thrive while headquartered in tiny Freeport, Maine population 7,800.

I’m sure Burt is wondering the same thing.

Shavitz became lost in the North Carolina move. Like a moose in a tobacco field, he stumbled around and failed miserably trying to fit into the corporate world.

Quimby made millions. She paid off Shavitz and he thumbed a ride back to Maine.

Alone.

Then Quimby made millions more.

And old Burt lives comfortably as nothing more than a bushy-bearded tourist attraction.

Kind of like Maine.

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