By Danna Burns-Shaw
Christy Plott is part of multi-generational family leather business, American Tanning & Leather LLC. “Am Tan” is a five-generation business that is located in Griffin, Georgia, 40 miles south of Atlanta, right at the source of the finest raw material in the world, the Louisiana alligator.
Christy was named after her father Chris Plott, but she is known throughout the industry as the “Queen of Gator.” The title is self-appointed. Several years ago, Christy heard about an alligator buyer from Italy working in Florida who was calling himself the “King of Alligator.” This was very aggravating to Christy. For one thing, there are no alligators in Italy and none of his family had ever been in the alligator business. More importantly, royalty is demonstrated by blood line and nobody in the world can lay claim to a more established lineage than Christy’s.
As a joke, Christy had personal cards made up – beautiful cards edged in pink with a big crown and her self-appointed title, “Queen of Gator.” She sent some to the Italian distributors as a joke. She also took them to her next trade show and once her actual business cards were gone, they started handing out the QoG cards. They became an instant hit. The top designer brands from New York and Europe took notice and soon everyone was calling Christy, the Queen of Gator.
“When I would go to New York and meet designers, being from the South, people either thought you lived in a single-wide trailer, married your cousin or you lived on a plantation where you sit on your porch drinking sweet tea all day long,” says Christy. “Once I started handing out the Queen of Gator cards, people started remembering me. They may not remember my name, but they would remember Queen of Gator.”
Queen of Gator is Christy’s handle on Twitter and Instagram. “La Reina” is engraved on her silver ID bracelet, “Queen of Alligator” is embroidered inside her mink coat, the tongue of her right pink-and-green Nike running shoe says “Gator,” the left says “Queen,” and her alligator boots have a tiara on the front and “Queen of Gator” on the back.
American Tanning is the oldest and largest alligator tannery in the country—and one of the only major alligator tanneries in the world. Christy’s great-grandfather started buying and selling fur in 1923. Her grandfather and father continued the business, buying otters, minks, foxes and the like from trappers, scraping the fat, flipping the animals inside out and then stretching them out to dry.
Christy Plott was born in 1979, ironically the same year that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, encouraged by a rebound in the alligator population, agreed to resume the legal trade of alligator on a strictly regulated basis. The idea was that alligators were such a valuable commodity landowners would be more inclined to protect the animal’s habitat rather than destroy it. Commerce could benefit conservation.
That year, at an auction in Florida, Chris Plott scooped up the first legal alligator skins available in more than a decade. But because the alligator trade had been closed, there wasn’t anyone around to tan them. With 5,000 skins in hand, he decided to build his own tannery and in 1980, American Tanning & Leather was born. When the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the alligator population fully recovered in 1987, things got easier for Chris, and in the early 1990s he started to make a profit on alligators.
Christy recalled when all the Plott kids started working at the tannery. “When you could count to 10!” she exclaimed. “If you could count to 10, you were old enough to stack hides in piles of 10.” Her first job after joining the family business was to help move the tannery in 2001. “You want to talk about a big job – moving a tannery is a BIG JOB!” They moved into a building that was used for canning vegetables and fruits, but had been empty for years. It required running all new water lines and installing a new water treatment facility. They bought all new equipment, making it a very modern, clean tannery.
The Tanning Team
A small team of 20 people tan and distribute up to 35,000 alligator hides per year. Five of those team members are Plotts. Including Christy, her father Chris, her brothers, Damon and Chandler Plott and nephew, fifth-generation Phillip, named after Chris’ brother who passed away, round out the five. Damon is in charge of grading the raw skins, and processing from raw until crust. Chandler is over everything from crust to finish.
Christy is the only female in the world that owns an alligator tannery. Her father always taught her to be strong. He also made sure she knew her strengths and that they were different from those of her brothers. Christy works on the business in sales, while her brothers work in the business making the best alligator leather in the U.S. This is a perfect combination for a successful family business, everyone taking responsibility for their individual strengths.
“Their favorite job,” referring to her brothers Damon and Chandler, “that they really hate the most, is all the maintenance. They have to fix everything. Most of our equipment is from overseas, and everything we have needs to be custom made to work for exotics. Regular machinery in regular tanneries is way too big to work on alligator,” says Christy.
Am Tan is the only alligator tannery in the U.S. that has the equipment to make millennium finish, a finish that is in between glazed and matte. This finish makes it easier to make products inside out and then turn them. The shiny leather doesn’t break when being turned.
When you have a leather tannery, finding good technicians is a challenge in the United States. There are no leather tanning schools in the U.S. Only two universities in the world offer any mastery level courses in tanning leather, one is in France and the other is in England. Christy met a student that was attending the school in France while at a trade show in Paris. During their visit this student told Christy she wanted to work for her. It took three years to get Maissa to the U.S. to work her dream job of tanning exotic leathers.
Chris’ old school principals of running a business have served them well; he doesn’t believe in having any debt. When they need new equipment, they write a check for it.
Shockingly, alligator and crocodile hides take 120-150 days to process from raw to finish. The bottlenecks in tanning production are shaving, polishing and toggling. All three of these operations need to be done by hand. They can put hundreds of skins in a tanning drum, but after they are taken out of the wet blue, all 300 hundred need to be shaved one by one… by hand. They are at a standstill in the tanning process until all the skins are shaved. Once this has happened, they go back in the drum for retanning.
“When people visit, they are shocked at how long everything takes to hand finish. Making exotic leather is 50 percent science and 50 percent art. It’s like cooking in a five-star restaurant, everyone expects it to be perfect,” says Christy.
Once the skins arrive, rolled, salted and smelling like seafood, they’re put through a multi-step process that can render them in 60-plus colors, and even more finishes. A paddle drum removes the scales from each skin before they go into a large, round tanning machine that treats them with the chemical chrome to render it in a “wet blue” state. Then the skins are tacked to boards by hand and dried in a white “crust” form to wait dyeing and finishing, a process that calls for meticulous hand work with a mechanical polisher.
“It’s like making a soufflé – if anything is off or different, it is going to change the outcome of the leather. So, you are trying to balance everything with as much control as possible while adding the artistic aspect, so each skin is special.”
Christy’s strengths are many, but she has a knack for looking at a finished skin and knowing what it would be best used for and who would want it. She acquired this knowledge by understanding her customers. When Christy first started working for American Tanning, she researched her client’s customers. She found out what they liked, what their style was, and even researched what area they were in. Much of her business is with the fashion industry. She researched this too: what current trends were and what colors were relevant, gathering information that would give her a better understanding of the industry and each designer’s styles and tastes.
Christy would joke with the buying team at Ralph Lauren when working with them. She knew what colors to send them because she knew what colors Mr. Lauren would like. She also knew she needed to use the right words to describe the colors of the leather. She would not call a leather “shocking blue” when working with them, she would choose words that spoke to their company, such as nautical blue or American blue.
Christy had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Oscar de la Renta when he was still alive. Because she had done her research and knew his customer, she knew which leathers he would like. He was very excited with the selection of colors and skins she presented him. “Buying leather and buying leather products is an emotional thing. If you call a color by a weird name, it may not resonate with the client. You have to be perceptive in this business. You have to look at a skin, knowing that alligator skin is not perfect, with all of its variations including scars, scales and scale shape. Even the shape of the animal gives the leather its own unique character. You have to know what will be valuable to the client, because they always look for value,” says Christy.
Another strength of Christy’s is networking. She offers a wealth of information to her clients when they are looking for something in particular, all through making friends and connections at trade shows. This has made Ms. Plott a valuable resource to clients when they need items such as zippers, dyes, stamps and all sorts of other items. As Zig Ziglar wisely stated, “Give them what they want and you will always get what you want.” She knows you need to be willing to sit on the same side of the table as them and look at things from their point of view.
When Christy was 22, she made her first trip alone to New York City to work with an old established handbag company. Before she went on the trip, her dad sat her down and explained that people in NYC were tough. They were different than at home in the South. She remembers him saying something to the effect of, “You’ve been coddled all your life and you need to be aware that this will not be easy.” Fresh out of business school, Christy picked out her best business suit, confident she could win this “old school” businessman over with her Southern girl charm. She walked into his office with a smile on her face and a spring in her step, because she was going to be sitting down next to one of the largest handbag manufacturers in the U.S. He took one look at her offerings and said, “What is this? I don’t need any of this,” and sent her out of his office in tears.
Two weeks later, the old man from New York called Christy and said he needed some specialty colors for a customer that had a store in Bergdorf Goodman. She excitedly agreed to produce these colors and of course, he gave her the two hardest colors to produce… pale celadon fern green and deep apricot, testing her ability to deliver. The Plott family put all their skill sets together and nailed the colors. That was the beginning of the best relationship Christy has ever acquired in the business. This tough 84-year-old man from Brooklyn met every stereotype you could imagine… a Jewish Marine. The relationship grew and he took Christy under his wing, teaching her everything about making handbags. “Meeting people like that helps you develop thicker skin. I swore I would never go back and see him again. He was testing me by putting me through the wringer,” she remembered. This relationship became a deeply revered friendship that carried on well after the “tough guy” retired.
The Pageant Girl
Christy is a confident, passionate, knowledgeable businesswoman that drips with charisma. She credits her outgoing personality to her mother for putting her in beauty pageants. “You learn how to stand up in front of people and say who you are. They put you on stage under bright lights in an uncomfortable frilly dress, with the pressure to compose yourself and speak nicely in front of others…all while competing against other girls. So, the pressure is on you,” says Christy.
Christy’s first pageant was when she was young, only three or four years old. She remembers it vividly. “I was so concerned with winning that I didn’t connect with the judges. Connecting with people is a real life skill to learn, you have to connect with other people to make a difference. The only thing I was putting my attention on was that sparkly crown and big trophy, so of course I lost. They handed me this little trophy that said ‘Participation.’ I still have that trophy to this day. I wailed and gave the trophy back and told the lady I didn’t want that one, I wanted the big one!” It took some time before her dad would let her enter another pageant. But the next pageant she entered, she remembered to connect with the judges and went on to win not only that pageant, but scores more, even being crowned Miss Junior Miss Georgia.
Through pageants Christy learned how to win with grace and to console the girls who didn’t win. She also learned how to lose with grace and was taught to congratulate the girls who did win. Christy credits beauty pageants with giving her the confidence to be able to connect with people and to stand up and present herself to the others.
Those speaking skills have helped her be a leading voice with groups of people presenting the case of the benefits of alligator conservation. She has presented that case to state legislators across the country using the skills she learned as a little pageant girl, to connect with her audience, no matter the size.
Christy would love to see more people interested in the conservation of wildlife. She would like people to see the benefit of the wild alligator business. Even if they don’t hunt, fish or eat meat, her hope is they understand how someone with an alligator product, and their local communities, benefit from conservation. Whether a little community like Springfield, Louisiana, with an alligator farm employing roughly 70 people, or her fifth-generation family business that supplies alligator and crocodile leather to hundreds of accounts around the world, Christy’s hope is for a broader coalition of people within the leather industry to help educate and support each other.
American Tanning & Leather LLC
Exotic Leather Banned in California: Why It Doesn’t Save Animals
By Christy Plott
At the end of last year, the state of California enacted legislation to ban the sale of many exotic leathers and leather products – including alligators and crocodiles, despite their use as a global conservation success story. The bans go into effect on January 1, 2020 (alligators and crocodiles) and January 1, 2022 (caiman and lizards). Python is already banned. California is the only government in the world to ban commerce of these species, whose skins are commonly used to make luxury leather goods and footwear.
California’s ban on these exotic leathers will adversely affect impoverished communities and villages throughout the world who supply eggs and raw skins for the industry. As a matter of fact, this ban will begin to reverse nearly 40 years of reptile conservation achievements worldwide. This ban is not going to save one animal. It won’t save one habitat. The ban will not help anyone – except urbanites who want to “feel good” because they think they are “saving” animals. Why? Ultimately, it is legal, regulated trade for products made from snake, alligator and crocodile that saves these animals from extinction. It provides incentives for people around the world, mostly poor, to look after their reptiles and the habitats they need to survive. For so many people, wildlife is their most important natural resource. It is our industry that provides the incentives and saves these species. The California ban could potentially be the catalyst of a domino effect of bans in other governments that wipes species out.
The trade in leather from exotic species is carefully monitored, governed and agreed upon under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) – an international treaty with over 180 member countries worldwide. CITES was formed to create a dedicated forum for governments and scientists to share information on their wildlife and conservation programs and jointly decide on mechanisms to regulate trade so it would not threaten the survival of species of commercial interest. As part of their obligation to CITES, each government has dedicated staff biologists and other scientists who work to ensure the survival of these wild plant and animal species (and their habitats). CITES largely works to benefit species, habitats and communities.
Mountains of data come out of complex wildlife management and socio-economic research supporting the sustainability of this economic sector – a system that is highly dynamic and ever changing. So, it’s no wonder that legislators and other politicians in America and around the world grapple with understanding the issue – that sometimes saving wildlife means killing it – it’s just counterintuitive. As a result, letting legislators decide the fate of alligators, snakes, and lizards is like asking a dentist to decide the safest and best gauge of steel to use in skyscraper construction. Few legislators have the scientific expertise to fully comprehend and make decisions on threatened or endangered species and all of them are susceptible to powerful animal rights lobbies. It is ironic that progressive, forward-thinking California has taken a step in the opposite direction of saving animals. In taking their unilateral decision to ban trade, California ignored the best scientific advice of the rest of the world (including state and federal governments, the United Nations, the Convention on Biological Diversity and CITES). Legislators have enacted seemingly well-meaning laws, which will ultimately harm the species they are supposedly trying to protect.
The commercial use of exotic leather has been the savior of many endangered species and their habitats. Why? Because almost all of these animals are serious predators that live in remote, undeveloped lands where local people have little to no money and few livelihood options. The financial incentive for landowners and local communities to earn money from the sale of raw skins and eggs encourages people to conserve the species and habitats – you can’t sell what no longer exists! Demand for exotic leather products is the driving force behind conservation efforts. Ultimately, consumer demand for alligator, snake, lizard, and crocodile products positively impacts the lives of impoverished people around the world – and saves species from endangerment or possible extinction.
For example, in the Tana River Basin in Kenya, crocodiles were a very real threat to the people. In these communities, there is no running water, electricity or even roads in some cases. The people live off the land and every day is a struggle against nature. In the past, many people were attacked and killed at the river’s edge while collecting drinking water. Livestock would go to the river and get taken by crocodiles – jeopardizing people’s food security and income. When desperate people are faced with challenges in meeting their basic needs, they deal with them the best way they can – by poisoning crocodiles and removing the threat. In 1997, Nile Crocodile, Ltd. Farm was opened, and it changed the game for the people and the crocs. The crocodile farm was willing to pay the villagers to collect crocodile eggs, but the crocodile population needed to be healthier to provide enough eggs to commercialize the farming operation. The poisoning had to stop. The farm improved the lives of the local community by installing a deep well-water pump – this ended the risk of crocodile attacks and incentivized the community to actively protect the crocodiles and their nesting sites. The farm started paying for eggs and the community members pooled their earnings to install fencing to protect the livestock. As a result, today there are more crocodiles than ever before, but no mortalities for people or livestock, and people have more money available to meet their basic needs. The people’s standard of living is increasing. Wild crocodiles are thriving. However, these benefits stop if there is no demand for crocodile leather products. This is a classic example of how local communities can have a better life and save species through sustainable use.
The alligator population in the United States has gone from near population collapse in the 1960s to over 5 million individuals today because of science-based alligator management programs, which include sustainable wild alligator harvest and alligator farming and ranching programs. In Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Florida, alligator farmers contract with private landowners and local and state governing bodies to purchase the rights to collect alligator eggs. The landowners restore and enhance the wetlands in order to have a more productive alligator nesting habitat and egg harvest. These restoration and scientific management programs result in better habitats for over 8,000 other species of plants and animals. The farmers collect the eggs (before hurricanes can flood nests or predators like raccoons can eat the eggs), hatch the baby alligators and release 10% back to the wild once they are 3-4 feet in length – bolstering wild alligator populations to grow and thrive. Alligator hunters play a role too. The wild culls of 20,000 – 30,000 alligators per year keep the wild populations healthy under pressures of urbanization and different land management regimes. The Louisiana alligator industry provides jobs to local communities and infuses nearly $150 million into the state economy. The conservation program works, period.
When governments, retailers or brands ban exotic leathers, they HURT conservation. Industry members like us have a role to play in educating the public on the benefits of using exotic leather. We have failed in educating ourselves and our customers, and we need to do a better job. Science and the global experience are on our side. Unless we begin to tell these success stories – linking our products to conservation benefit, poverty alleviation and to a better world – I am afraid that more states will enact narrow-minded, singular decisions. I hope that leather workers across America will do their part to tell these stories and turn things around in California next year.
What the Experts Say:
“CITES works. Regulated and sustainable trade works. Sustainable use works. I could cite many examples of successes but let me mention just one. Crocodiles were listed in 1975 in response to severe depletion. The crocodile industry is now worth over $100 million a year; the illegal trade has all but vanished and crocodiles are far more abundant than they were 50 years ago.” – Inger Anderson, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme
“The benefits of Louisiana’s alligator industry to alligators are the tip of the iceberg; the industry is exponentially more beneficial to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and the thousands of species of plants and animals than inhabit it.” – Jeb Linscombe, Alligator Biologist Program Manager, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (USA)
“People should come and see the benefits for themselves. The message should no longer be “this industry is awful.” It should be “buy a crocodile handbag and save five more crocodiles, and countless other species.” – Dr. Daniel Natusch, Biologist and Ecologist specializing in Snake Conservation (France)
“What Works” is the only definitive measure of a conservation program, and as the US alligator programs work spectacularly well, benefiting alligators, people and wetlands, they deserve accolades … not punishment.” – Dr. Grahame Webb, Biologist and Chairman of the IUCN Crocodile Specialist Group, the world’s leading authority on crocodile conservation (Australia)
“Restricting legal, sustainable trade just hurts poor people and doesn’t save any alligators.” – Dr. Perran Ross, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation – University of Florida (USA)
“Sound wildlife conservation and regulatory oversight have paved the path to the American alligator conservation success story. Wildlife conservation agencies and commercial alligator industries have cooperated together to reverse the threat on the status of alligators across its range, resulting in thriving populations and ample product for industry supply and demands.” – Ricky Flynt, Alligator Biologist Program Manager, Mississippi Department of Parks and Wildlife (USA)
“There are several cases in which populations of some species have decreased to near extinction due to their commercial value and irrational use; and yet, for same economic reason, those species have been recovered as a result of the active participation of local people through the implementation of sustainable-use programs. On the contrary, in cases where people have not benefited by these programs, the species continue to the path towards disappearance”. – Dr. Pablo Siroski, zoology, biology and conservation expert (Argentina)
“The proof is in the pudding – or in this case, in the species. Of the world’s 27 crocodilian species, the only ones that aren’t imminently threatened with extinction are those that are being valued for commercial purposes. The remaining 7-10 species will be lost forever, some as soon as tomorrow, because local communities don’t value or benefit from them. Sustainable use saves wildlife, it saves habitat, and it saves people.” – Dr. Matt Shirley, Conservation Scientist, Florida International University (USA/West Africa)
“Florida’s alligator management program provides commercial and recreational opportunities, and has been nationally and internationally recognized as a model for the sustainable use of a renewable natural resource. The economic benefits associated with participating in the FWC’s alligator management programs supports the research, management and law enforcement activities that contribute to the conservation success of Florida’s alligator population. Opportunities for sustainable use also create ambassadors for the long-term well-being of the state’s alligator resource.” – Dwayne Carbonneau, Alligator Biologist Program Manager, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (USA)