EAST MANATEE -- Some of the best ideas come while lying down, but John Spicer didn't imagine it that way when he was stringing Christmas lights.
One holiday season, Spicer fell from his extension ladder, landed on his back and stayed on the ground for a couple hours.
"I had a lot of thoughts when I was laying on the ground, worrying about things -- I had a little boy," Spicer said. "More than 300 people die every year coming off an extension ladder, and more than 500,000 go to the emergency room. I didn't want to be one of those numbers any more."
Spicer still has the same ladder today, but he designed the Monkeyrack: a special accessory for ladders that is a lifesaver for Santa Clauses trying to work around their home. Spicer, the product engineer, runs the company with his wife, Julie Spicer, who is the president.
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The Monkeyrack is a steel attachment recommended for commercial grade extension ladders that can handle a 300-pound load. It connects to a trailer hitch with
a pin and a latch to stabilize the ladder along with a stabilizer leg that drops to the ground. A bracket and U-bolts hold the ladder to the Monkeyrack to complete the system.
Whether it's stringing holiday lights or picking orange trees, the Spicers' goal is safety. In addition to the numbers Spicer cited, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission also estimates that 14,000 people are treated for injuries from ladder falls each year in emergency rooms, and some are fatal.
The family-owned business started in 2009 and the Spicers have a patent for the design.
"In my eye, we've been abusing this thing for eight years, testing it," John Spicer said. "We've yet to have any problems with any of our customers. I think the average age of our customer is 65."
The Monkeyrack weighs 55 pounds, retails for $579 for a single unit, and can be ordered through www.monkeyrack.com. Bulk orders take about six weeks to process. The family works out of their Waterline Road home, while a manufacturing plant in Tallevast fabricates the product. Orders have come from as far as Alaska and Canada, and the company has customers in 43 states.
But the product is all Florida.
"We're as local as we can get," John Spicer said, noting that the farthest a part has to travel is Lakeland for the hitch pins.
The company is contacted frequently from overseas manufacturers, but it's important that they keep the labor and product made in America, Julie Spicer said.
"We're trying to put people to work right here and support our local economy," she said.
Stockton Maintenance Group in West Palm Beach is one of Monkeyrack's customers and Abby Brodie, account coordinator for the company, said it's a great product for a company like Stockton that is "very obsessed with safety."
"We're very aware with safety issues and we try to pay extra attention to anything that helps us," Brodie said.
The maintenance workers love the product as they use it for parking lot light repair, tree trimming, gutter cleaning and other tall jobs, she said.
The Monkeyrack also saves Stockton money as it doesn't have to rent a bucket truck or scissor lift for certain jobs, she said. And the company has not had any ladder-related injuries while using Monkeyrack for the last five years.
The Spicers say the Monkeyrack is safer than someone holding a ladder at the bottom because it helps minimize shaking. Not holding a ladder is also a top reason why it's popular with women customers.
"A lot of women like to buy it for their husbands so they don't have to hold that ladder any more," Julie Spicer said.
Right around Christmastime, it's like, 'What am I going to get him?' And it does play a major factor."
An Occupational Safety & Health Administration certified instruction, Antonio Alexander of AA Safety Consulting, reviewed the product and is in a demonstration video for OSHA compliant-use on the company's website.
OSHA recommends that the ladder should be used up to 20 feet of freestanding height, and beyond that, the stabilizer leg should be extended to touch the ground.
"We got full support from them and that helped launch us from the homeowner market to the commercial market," Julie Spicer said.
For added safety, the company recommends wearing a harness to clip onto the ladder.
Customers also like the Monkeyrack because they don't have to lean against a rotted pole or a tree hollowed out by a woodpecker like the ones surrounding their home, the Spicers said.
"We're still seeing ladders against trees and poles, and it's scary," Julie Spicer said.
The Monkeyrack name can be pegged to their son, Steven Spicer, who fell in love with the ladder system while the family was testing out designs in their shop.
"He was 3, and he disappeared and we're looking around and one of my employees said he was standing on top of the ladder. He said, 'Look at that little monkey,'" Spicer recalled.
The name stuck. And his son, now 11, still monkeys around.
"Every time we set up the Monkeyrack, Stevie -- he's right up there," John Spicer said, laughing.
As for John Spicer, he now lands on his feet the conventional way coming off ladders, not worrying about a tumble.
"I haven't fallen off a ladder in eight years," Spicer said, chuckling.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.