Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods
Roxanne was by then surely the most unorthodox CEO in America. In her corporate headquarters in North Carolina, she conducted herself in the spirit of who she had been in her hippie days. Dogs and children were welcome in the workplace. She kept her desk in the art department, making herself available to any of her 300 employees. She never advertised Burt’s Bees.
“I always felt it was much more important what people said about us than what we said about ourselves,” she says of the product that sold mostly by word of mouth. Roxanne found that one key to the success of her products was the process of discovery: “Once [the consumer] found Burt’s Bees, they felt like it was theirs, it became personal. They put their flag in, as if to say, This is mine, I discovered it! And they became really loyal.”
Burt accompanied Roxanne to North Carolina but lasted only two months. And so Roxanne bought out his share of the business, and he returned to his converted turkey coop in Maine, where he still lives, with an abandoned beehive in the front yard, goldenrod growing high around it.
In 2003, having grown the business to a phenomenal $60 million a year, Roxanne Quimby sold Burt’s Bees to AEA, a New York investment company, for $141 million, but retained 20 percent ownership. Not exactly overnight but in the comfort of time, Roxanne Quimby, she of the long skirts and wood-heated spaces, had become a vastly wealthy woman: “At that point, I said to myself, ‘Now what, Roxanne? You’re only in your fifties and you’ve got another 20 years of life on this earth. What do you want to do?'”
She went to Hawaii and to Antarctica and all the places she had always wanted to go. She shopped for a home in Palm Beach. She bought six. “I was questing,” she says now.
And then she returned to Maine, where the fight for the North Woods was on. She came to realize that “money itself is totally worthless. You can’t eat it. You can’t cover yourself up with it at night and stay warm. Money is only what it does, and so I was trying to find the most meaningful thing to do with it that I can.”
And so, establishing a nonprofit foundation called Elliotsville Plantation, she began to buy up the North Woods.
Maps spread before her on the long table, Roxanne Quimby draws red outlines onto a map of northern Maine. She is formidable, tall and imposing, dressed in black, her long dark hair hanging loose. “Everything in red is mine,” she says.
On the map, Baxter State Park cuts a clean, elongated block right in the center of the big, ragged, cranial head of the state of Maine. Baxter State Park is the creation of Percival P. Baxter, who served as Maine’s governor for only four years (1921-1925), during which time he tried and failed to make Mount Katahdin, which he regarded as the state’s crowning glory, a state park. Despite that failure, “Mr. Maine,” as he was sometimes known, never lost sight of that goal.
Not a particularly vigorous outdoorsman, Baxter became ill after one of his climbs up Katahdin. Through his fever that day, he vowed to himself that if he lived, he would ensure that one day, the mountain, which then belonged to the Great Northern Paper Company and to one other private owner, would forever belong to Maine.
Starting in 1930 and ending in 1962, Baxter quietly purchased 28 separate pieces of land, a crazy quilt of mountains and streams, ponds, and waterfalls that he put together to form what is now known as Baxter State Park: 202,064 acres, more than 315 square miles of stark wilderness, a place Baxter willed to be “forever wild,” and which will remain so through the deeds of his trust. (Through additional purchases after Baxter’s death in 1969, the park now encompasses 204,733 square miles.)
These were not simple purchases, given over for the asking price. As he bought more and more parcels and closed most of them to hunting, angry citizens raised their voices. A park, Baxter discovered, was not something everyone embraced.
Most of Roxanne’s red rectangles are east of the park. She is stitching her own crazy quilt. These are plots of land she has bought. There are others she hopes to buy. Some are scattered and separate. By bargaining and swapping, she is trying to put together a whole. In concert with RESTORE, what she has in mind is a national park. “I feel like my reason for being put on this earth will have been fulfilled because this will live on after me. A park is a demonstration that there is something in America that I can love,” she says, her counterculture philosophy re-emerging. “It’s very democratic: A Mexican immigrant or a millionaire, for 10 bucks, they both get the same experience.”
She is sitting in the front room of one of her many homes, far from the cabin in Guilford. This particular house is in Portland, and it so happens that it once belonged to Governor Percival P. Baxter, whom she admires a great deal. “He is very inspiring to me,” she adds, “but there’s a difference between us. Governor Baxter inherited his money. He didn’t earn it. That makes for a whole different outlook. The way Percival Baxter went about acquiring his land must have been different, spending someone else’s money. I fight tooth and nail for every dollar. I’m a businessperson. I don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
That Roxanne Quimby and Percival Baxter live and lived at opposite ends of the American spectrum is true. The North Woods are Roxanne’s passion now, as the bees once were. “It was part of the culture of our family, to be out in the woods,” she recalls. “Both my kids hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. The fact that the paper companies were downsizing came at the right time for me. There were all these opportunities. They used the woods and owned the mills, and that did, in some ways, preserve the wilderness because they never cut it up into pieces, so it’s still fairly intact. Chesuncook, Northeast Carry, Kokadjo — people carry those places in their minds, and even if they don’t get there, it’s important that it’s there, that they could be there if they wanted to.”