A Business on the Ascent
An inventive approach to safety on the job
by Keith Morrill
Wanting to find a way to make construction staging that was safe but fast to erect, Eric Kurtz of Colchester designed Smart-Bracket Staging, an OSHA-compliant, patent-pending product that goes up in minutes.
Eric Kurtz has set the stage for success. Kurtz is the inventor of the Smart-Bracket and Smart-Rail, innovative products designed to raise the standard in staging safety. His Colchester business, Smart-Bracket Staging, though only a few years old, is already generating buzz in some construction circles. Given time, Kurtz is confident the products will secure their place in the industry. “This is going to be the new standard in wall brackets,” he says.
Kurtz has a long history of working in the trades, and Smart-Bracket Staging represents the culmination of years spent in welding and construction.
He grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, born into a clan of welders. His father helped weld the Alaska pipeline and both his brothers were career welders. When Kurtz joined the Navy in 1987 at the age of 17, it made sense for him to pursue a trade, and he landed himself in the Seabees, the Navy’s construction force.
After training, he expected, like most newbies, to be placed in foreign stations for his tour but somehow found himself located at Naval Security Station in Washington, D.C. It’s the sort of laid-back gig that he says one earns after a few decades in the service. “How I got it, I have no idea,” says Kurtz.
He had the honor of helping to build an outdoor running track near Number One Observatory Circle for then Vice President George H. W. Bush — a job he says was probably the most exciting part of his three-year tour.
When his tour ended, he put in a brief stint in Pennsylvania working construction before turning back to the family trade, going to work for the Pipeliners Local Union 798. This would set him on a different sort of tour, this time traveling the United States welding gas pipelines. One job in 1996 — August 12, to be exact — brought him to Swanton to check for ice damage on a pipeline running beneath the Missisquoi River.
The job itself proved uneventful (it turned out there was no damage to the pipe), but that night he and his coworker headed to the Depot Pub on Swift Street in St. Albans for a beer and to shoot pool. When Laurie Goldsmith and a friend came in to do the same, Kurtz immediately put up his 50 cents on her pool table to reserve the next game with her. “It was the best investment ever,” he says. “She still thinks I let her win, and I didn’t.”
It turned out that, although Goldsmith had moved to Vermont when she was 12, she had grown up in Burlington, Connecticut, just a 15-minute drive from Kurtz’s home.
The two started dating immediately — they consider the date of that first pool match their true anniversary — and Kurtz made the move to Vermont. For the next few years, he worked for a number of sprinkler and stovepipe-fitting companies in Vermont, and they both worked for the late Red Elmore’s Redi-Bilt Construction.
In 2002, when Goldsmith launched her own construction company, Laurie’s Certified Construction, she needed people in the field she could rely on. With Kurtz’s technical training and experience, he was an ideal candidate to serve as her project manager.
During this time in the field working for Laurie’s, Kurtz made a critical observation. Staging brackets were long overdue for a technological upgrade. In general, traditional staging setup is laborious at best. Kurtz saw a lot of other contractors shortcutting this important process to save time, resulting in staging setups that were neither safe nor compliant with OSHA regulations.
Fortunately, Kurtz had all the skills and field knowledge required to design a solution, and in 2012 he set to work drafting plans, welding prototypes, field-testing, and refining the product until he was content. He applied for a patent and had the necessary load-testing conducted to declare the product OSHA-compliant. It was a two-year journey from inception to retail availability, and the product was introduced commercially in 2015. The patent is pending.
Douglas Duclos of Redrock Mechanical has known Kurtz for a number of years. Duclos provides mechanical work for Laurie’s Certified Construction and was witness to the development of the Smart-Bracket. “I think it’s a really unique product,” he says. “I’ve been with him since he’s been developing it and it’s come a long way.” Duclos knows of construction companies that have incorporated the Smart-Brackets into their practice and love them.
One of Kurtz’s defining characteristics is a do-it-yourself approach. He is known among his friends for being a bit of a workhorse. Longtime friend William Loney says, “He’s got a work ethic that is equal to any really good businessman that I’ve ever known.” He and Kurtz met 20 years ago as neighbors on the Georgia Shore, and have since worked on a number of projects together. “He’s one of the most personable people I’ve ever met.”
Kurtz and Goldsmith share that same tireless work ethic. Whether it’s addressing and stuffing envelopes until the early hours of the morning, or running the gantlet of spring home shows, they work side by side, juggling the duties of running Laurie’s Certified Construction while getting Smart-Bracket Staging off the ground.
Goldsmith recently hired a construction manager to relieve Kurtz of his field duties, giving him more time in their home office, drafting plans for clients while marketing Smart-Bracket Staging. They keep a frenetic schedule, which ensures that there are only a few hours in the day when their home office is silent.
At this stage, Kurtz’s major client is Habitat for Humanity, an organization he has volunteered with for a number of years. The buzz within the nonprofit started when Kurtz donated a set of Smart-Brackets to the local crew.
That buzz continued to build in Atlanta last April when Kurtz showcased the Smart-Brackets during a Habitat for Humanity conference. For an organization fueled largely by unskilled volunteers, the value of Smart-Brackets was immediately evident, because Kurtz’s product allows anyone to set up OSHA-compliant brackets in a matter of minutes. To date, Habitat for Humanity is responsible for the majority of his sales.
“It was a kind of karma coming back to me,” he says, “because I donated my time, and a couple years after I had this invention, they ended up being my biggest client.”
Yet, says Kurtz, the value for professionals is indisputable, and his products would increase efficiency and safety on jobsites. “Everybody takes shortcuts with the old style because it takes too long to set up. That’s when accidents happen — shortcuts. With mine, there’s no shortcut. You don’t need any shortcut. They set up in less than two minutes for a 30-foot wall.” A video on his website illustrates how easy it is.
Kurtz is confident that the Smart-Bracket’s effectiveness and low price speak for themselves, and that his product could become the new industry standard if only they could make it more visible. That, however, is the biggest hurdle he faces, the anonymity with which most startups struggle.
Kurtz has experienced some success selling to local contractors such as Tom Moore Builders, and his retail availability extends to stores such as Acme Glass in Burlington, Got That Rental in Essex, and ABC Supply Co. in Williston. The latter two have Smart-Bracket displays in-store.
Still, it’s obvious that Kurtz and Goldsmith’s combined efforts may not be enough on their own to get Smart-Bracket Staging the necessary recognition, and they say they are likely to seek a business loan in the near future to aid their marketing. Another of his inventions, Smart-Rail, provides a fast and efficient way to set up OSHA-compliant safety rails for preventing falls on the jobsite. He’s working on a gable rail system at the request of Habitat for Humanity.
Despite their hectic schedules, come summer, he and Goldsmith spend as much time on Lake Champlain as possible, relocating on the weekends to a live-aboard boat at The Moorings Marina in Malletts Bay, where they run their businesses dockside. “We just bought a new Silverton in September,” says Kurtz, “so we can’t wait to spend some time on that.”
Although they haven’t taken an actual vacation in years, they say working on the water is just as good as a summer away. However, they admit that working weekends, even afloat, is something they’d like to scale back on.
“We’re trying right now to take time for our family on the weekends. We’ve got grandkids and kids that we need to spend more time with,” says Goldsmith. “So we’ve been turning people down, when we used to say, ‘Yup, we’ll go, we’ll go!’”
To that end, they make the time to pile their whole family into their new boat just so they can spend a few days together, cruising the lake and enjoying the sunshine. This is no easy feat considering the fact that they have five children and seven grandchildren.
Kurtz maintains that the crazy schedule they keep is worth it. “All these 2- and 3-o’clock-in-the-morning wake-ups are so that when the boat goes in, we can spend time on there.” •