Chris Lobley, 23, was 15 when he started his own business working out of his Poland bedroom. He moved the manufacturing process into his parents’ garage before expanding to the Hill Mill at 41 Chestnut St. in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Wallets, money clips and portfolios are a few of the items that Chris Lobley makes at C. Richard’s Leather in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Chris Lobley started his first business at 15, making table lamps and rustic ring boxes from trees on his parents’ property in Poland. More than 3,000 orders later, that capital launched C. Richard’s Leather, selling handmade, high-end wallets, portfolios and belts.

He moved into the Hill Mill in late September. His first employee started last week.

Lobley is 23 with drive and ambition to spare, and quick to thank parents Rick and Carla for the assist.

“I don’t think I’d be here today if they didn’t allow me to use their garage and park their cars out in 2 feet of snow,” Lobley said.

He’s not sure yet if he wants to make a career out of leather and is giving himself a year to decide.

“I’m going to pour 100% of my time and resources into this business, now that I have an actual space to do that,” Lobley said. “I do have very high hopes … and it is something I would consider my passion. I love manufacturing high-end product, and the process from start to delivery for the customer.”

Lobley said his first company, MaineBirchWorks, grew out of winter boredom and wanting a job.

“We had some birch trees in our backyard — work with what you have,” he said.

He bought a miter saw and drill bit and set up his first Etsy shop.

“The rustic wedding trend itself … got that business off the ground, to say the least,” Lobley said.

Brides and grooms snapped up his little hollowed out log ring boxes.

“Trends go in and out and I needed something with more stability,” he said. “That brought me to leather goods.”

An assortment of leather goods wait to be photographed in Chris Lobley’s in-house studio at C. Richard’s Leather in the Hill Mill in Lewiston. Lobley takes the photographs for his company website. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

After Lobley, who was home-schooled, graduated high school in 2015, he took a year to learn all he could about leather. Where would he source material? What equipment would he need? Where would he find suppliers?

“Cote Bros. sewing, they were very instrumental in selling me my first machine,” Lobley said. “He gave me a two-hour lesson on how to stitch and I’d actually already sold a wallet, ‘I’d better figure this thing out to actually deliver to the customer,’ and I did, and I shipped the wallet and that was that. That was the start of it.”

He set up shop in his bedroom, then the garage, and this year knew he couldn’t grow anymore without more space.

The 3,000 square feet on the sixth floor of the Hill Mill has plenty of room for his two laser engravers, two sewing machines and two cutting presses, room to store leather and space for product photo shoots.

Lobley has designed each leather portfolio, wallet, money clip and mouse pad, designing dies for each. The leather pieces are punched out then artfully sewn together. Most everything is made to order, much of it personalized with the customer’s name or initials, which has set him apart in the online landscape.

“It’s a very saturated space,” he said. “To have any type of competitive advantage is very important in the consumer products industry.”

Chris Lobley sews a leather patch on a cap at C. Richard’s Leather in Lewiston. Lobley engraves company logos on the patches that he attaches to hats. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Even with all the handwork, Lobley still commits to a three- to five-day turn-time. As Thanksgiving gets closer, he’ll start to log 90 to 100 hours a week to get out holiday orders.

Lobley still sells on Etsy under C. Richard’s Leather (Richard is his middle name) and on his website. He’s relied on word-of-mouth so far and hopes to have a marketing push in 2020, now that he has help.

He’s also working to grow business-to-business sales, recently getting a bulk order from a California company after personalized mouse pads. L.L.Bean is a dream customer, some day.

“It feels great to build something from scratch and to watch it grow, and that is something I find really rewarding,” Lobley said. “This is just the beginning. (It’s) very exciting to finally have unlimited space to expand into and to see where all this can go.”

Chris Lobley checks his inventory of domestically sourced leather he uses at C. Richard’s Leather in the Hill Mill in Lewiston. A lot of the leather comes from Maine tanneries. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Chris Lobley uses a hydraulic dye-press to cut a piece of leather while making a double sleeve wallet at C. Richard’s Leather in the Hill Mill in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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