Entrepreneurs

Skinning and stuffing alligators helped this husband and wife achieve the American dream

Rick Lightsey's father and uncle were some of the first nuisance alligator trappers in the Okeechobee, Florida.

In South Florida, alligators are a part of daily life. Nuisance trappers catch the predators that wander into residential or business territory and are perceived to be a threat to people, pets or property.

Lightsey, who is now 65, sold bait and built boats for money instead. In the early days of his 43-year marriage to his wife and business partner, Bunny, now 62, times were tough.

Rick and Bunny Lightsey own Florida Trophy Gators.
Rick and Bunny Lightsey own Florida Trophy Gators.

"We just never knew what we were going to have that month. Sometimes we went three months and didn't make a mortgage payment. It was hard," says Bunny on CNBC's "Blue Collar Millionaires."

But as Rick's father aged and began having trouble with taxidermy, Rick decided he should learn his father's trade. In 2006, Rick and Bunny took over Rick's father's alligator business and completely transformed it.

What the husband-wife duo first ran out of their house has become an 11-person company. The boomer entrepreneurs grew the Florida Trophy Gators into a seven-figure success. In 2015, the Lightseys made $1.4 million in sales. While they are still closing the books on the fiscal year, Bunny says she expects to do about the same in 2016.

"This is the American dream," says Rick.

Rick and Bunny Lightsey turned Florida Trophy Gators into a million-dollar business with clients across the world.
Rick and Bunny Lightsey turned Florida Trophy Gators into a million-dollar business with clients across the world.

Rick catches alligators and oversees the skinning and stuffing. Bunny takes care of the accounting and administration.

They catch nuisance alligators, though that doesn't pay well: Only about $30 a pop. Many of the nuisance alligators Rick catches he delivers live to their son's alligator farm.

Most of Florida Trophy Gator's real business is stuffing and presenting alligators that hunters shoot.

Alligator hunting in South Florida attracts visitors from all over the world. Bunny says they have sent stuffed alligators as far as Norway, Denmark, England and Russia. One member of the staff's only job is building crates to ship the alligator trophies. The cost of a trophy depends on the size but can range from $2,000 to $12,000.

Rick Lightsey learned nuisance alligator trapping from his father in South Florida.
Rick Lightsey learned nuisance alligator trapping from his father in South Florida.

"I have got the best in the world," says Bunny of her taxidermists. "They can bring a head in here that is just blown to smithereens and they can rebuild it to where you can never even tell where it was shot."

Also, Florida Trophy Gator buys alligators shot during the hunting season and sells the meat to restaurants and turns the skins into boots, handbags and key chains. No part of the alligator goes unused.

Cutting up an alligator is messy work. When the CNBC crew was filming the process, Rick noticed the photojournalists were making faces.

"Y'all are a bunch of sissies. We are smelling money. It smells good," Rick says.

For the Lightseys, their newfound financial success is liberating. But they also haven't ditched the trappings of the life they built together from the beginning. They have stayed in the same home, though they have renovated and expanded it.

They did upgrade their rides. "I guess the moment I realized we made it is when I woke up Christmas morning and Ricky had bought me a new Lexus for Christmas. Just like the commercials," says Bunny, in an interview with CNBC.

But it took a while for Bunny to get that Lexus.

"I think sometimes people don't succeed because it's not fast enough. You know, Ricky and I went through a lotta different things. You know, we're in our '60s. And, you know, we're finally feeling some real success," she says in an interview with CNBC. "It's persistence of doing what you like."