Roxanne Quimby | Controversy in Maine's North Woods
St. Pierre’s father and grandfather worked in the mills and in the woods. “People thought this land was like a permanent institution, like the U.S. government,” he says. “They thought it was going to be there forever and always be the same. Well, no matter what happens, that is not the case.”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.
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