Small Business Tips

Pivoting and resilience . . . 140 years ago

This is the story of a young man who went from being a prison inmate in the mid-19th century to establishing a major company that still thrives today.

And, it proves that pivoting is not a new, pandemic-created business concept . . .

In 1848, a young Bohemian man joined revolutionary group and participated in an uprising in Prague. Things did not turn out well for him. He was caught, sentenced and thrown into Daliborka Prison.

His mother, however, conspired to help him escape; she smuggled a set of clothes into the prison. Wearing his new civilian duds, he walked out through an unlocked gate right past the unsuspecting guards.

He and his brothers fled to America, landing in New York where they made cigar boxes for a living. Around this time, they heard about the gold rush in California. The brothers became enamored with the idea of panning for gold. So, they pivoted!

They made their way to California by ship, hoping to take advantage of the new gold rush. The journey took three years (the Panama Canal had not yet been built). By the time they arrived it was too late — the gold rush was over.

So, they pivoted again! Settling in San Francisco, they went back to the cigar box business, purchasing timberland in Sonoma County for their raw materials. The area was booming and the brothers soon found themselves selling massive amounts of their hardwood to the construction industry.

However, in 1876 a fire destroyed their cigar-box-making operation. And, in time, the brothers were soon left with acres of cleared, timber-less land.

They considered using the cleared land to grow crops. They sent a soil sample to the University of California at Davis for analysis to determine the best crops to plant. The report they got back concluded that the soil would be ideal for growing grapes.

They pivoted one more time!

They planted a vineyard, and started what has since become one of the best known champagne companies in the world.

The young Bohemian man was Francis Korbel – and he and his family were the founders of F. Korbel & Brothers. The 140-year-old manufacturer of Korbel Champagne is still a leader in the industry.

The full story of Korbel’s journey is very interesting and entertaining. A video of the company history can be found at

And, if you ever find yourself in the Sonoma region with some times on your hands, take the tour: You’ll find it fascinating, fun and maybe a bit inspirational as well.