Thane Lorbach started woodworking as a hobby, and in 2003, he turned that hobby into the most fun job he's ever had.
When Lorbach quit his 20-year career in social work to pursue woodworking as a full-time job
in 2007, he was primarily making high-quality antique furniture reproductions. Although they were popular and a step up from the handmade boxes he had first started selling, Lorbach knew it was a niche market and that he would have to expand his horizons if he wanted to be successful.
Lorbach visited a friend in Florida who makes boats, and he found what would set him apart as a woodworker. That was the first time he saw a CNC (computer numerical controlled) machine, that could carve intricate 3D objects and designs into wood from a digital design program like CAD.
Lorbach put the piece of equipment on his “dream list” and kept track of those machines, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it made sense for him to buy one.
“It had been on my mind since 2007, but they’re a pricey item,” he says. “But in 2011, I got a call from a beer distributor, a guy who at the time worked there knew I was a woodworker. They were re-branding, trying to get better-looking taps, something locally made. When I got that call and they said ‘can you do it?’ I said ‘well, if you can wait six weeks I can.’”
That order of 1,300 custom-made wooden beer taps for a local brewery helped jumpstart Lorbach's business from antique furniture to high-tech tools. He bought his first CNC machine to fill the order, and by 2013 he had taken a class to learn the design program AutoCAD and purchased an industrial laser for precision cutting of parts.
The high-tech tools expanded what Lorbach could do with woodworking — he can now make anything from eyeglass frames to retail displays, and it opened the door for business clients to truly keep his small business going.
The challenge that prompted Lorbach to enter Artworks' Big Pitch presented by U.S. Bank
was no longer a lack of customers, but a lack of space to work and fill orders. Lorbach has been running the business out of his garage and basement since he started, and things have started to feel a little cramped.
“It’s still got concrete walls, it’s still got support beams to hold the house up, so it’s not the most ideal shop setting,” Lorbach says. “Some of my friends call it the sardine can. I’m quite limited in the kinds of jobs that I can take on and the number of jobs that I can take on.”
The $20,000 in business grants available through Big Pitch would allow Lorbach to move to a new space and take on more diverse jobs, and even potentially hire other employees. But Big Pitch has helped in more ways than just the grant possibilities.
“With this Big Pitch program, with my two mentors, my business mentor and my banking mentor, I’m learning so much about running my business, making those contacts and crafting a better business plan," he says. "So that part, long-term, is equally or more important than winning $5,000, $15,000 or $20,000.”
For Thane Lorbach Custom Manufacturing, the Big Pitch really boils down to one thing:
“I’m looking to run my business better,” he says. “So I’m not afraid to ask for help. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
ArtWorks Big Pitch Presented by U.S. Bank is a 10-week mentorship program that culminates in a pitch competition Oct. 6 at Rhinegeist. You can purchase tickets here.