Facetime: Taking drinks to a new level

Chrish Graebner at the launch of Level Lemonade. Photo by Andrew Marrett. 

Chrish Graebner was born in Frankfurt, Germany, as the middle son in a family of five. Chrish’s father worked in the banking industry and his mother stayed home to look after Chrish’s older brother and younger sister, a pretty common scenario at that time in Germany.

“I was not a big-of-a-fan of school so I always had little side projects to keep my interest up: my first business idea was a Snow-shovelling insurance for the neighbours: instead of paying hourly rates for snow shovelling – a job that almost every German child tried to make some pocket money with- they would pay a flat fee for the entire winter. If it snowed I had to shovel their drive-ways and sidewalks of all snow, no matter how many hours it took. I ran this business for the three warmers winters on record in the row – which gave the reputation of a shrewd business man in the neighbourhood.

At a later stage – beginning of the 80’s I had a little business of selling cheap but very fashionable sunglasses basically out of my school bag. It taught me many lessons in buying cheap and selling with a profit but also finding the right price points for the kids in the school yard. Something that is still important in my life now.

I realised that the last two years of school before the German HSC is when it counts to put the work in and I did because I knew it would affect the possibilities that I could have after school. And it worked out fine, it taught me that if have to, I can pull up my socks just as well as the next man.

In my last two years at school I also got into computers. I had got my first computer when I was 12, the Sinclair 128. I got really into programming, and I continued to do it all the way through high school and I was wearing nothing but dark clothing, with white bleached hair and always sunglasses- I was this dark cyber guy. I developed a program that was touching on a very relevant topic for students at that time of their school career: which electives to choose to gain most possible points for the final grade. The German department of education bought that program off me after trailing it at my local high school, I think I sold it too cheap when I look how much money App developers are making today!

Using the computer was what introduced me to Red Bull as a product. Through chat rooms, I had heard that there was a new drink in Austria that would allow you to keep going non-stop which translated for me into using the computer non-stop, but it was illegal in Germany. This had me really interested.

I had a small old car, a850 Fiat Spider, and I would drive down to the Austrian border which is about six hours from Frankfurt and buy ‘a couple of’ Red Bulls. The gas stations at the border would stock the product by the pallet because Taurine wasn’t yet approved for food other than in Austria. But given the word about the stuff giving you a buzz got out and everybody wanted some,  I went and bought as much Red Bell as I could fit into the car and drove it across the border back into Germany. I then started selling it to kids at school; at this stage I was selling sunglasses and Red Bull (at equivalent of $5/can in 1988).

After my high school graduation I went to the European Business School, and I studied a double degree in computer science and marketing. During my time at university I was able to do an exchange a semester of Economics in London, and a semester of Computer Science in San Diego, California as well as a couple of extended internships in Germany, England, and Argentina.

Luck (or if you like: coincidence) is such a big factor in so much of life, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time, and I contribute so much of my career to luck.

After I got my degree, there was an opportunity for companies to pitch to graduates but I come from a long line of workaholics and so I was determined not to start working for as long as possible, of course to the dismay of my parents.  I was determined to take none of the initial job offers, but to travel instead. I travelled through South East Asia, Africa and trekked through Nepal. While I was in a village in India, I called my mum to say ‘hey I’m still alive’ and she said there was a professor of mine who was trying to get in touch with me.

So I called him and he asked me if I was still determined to not work, and when I said yes, he said he had the perfect job for me.

The job was in Uganda, Africa, the task was to install the first ever computer network of the University of Kampala, so I took it. So here I was with my university degree in Africa by myself for three months. I absolutely enjoyed what I jokingly refer to “my time in Africa”, I met lovely students and teachers and understood so much more of the real problems that many people are facing on a daily basis, which triggered gratefulness to being a lucky one, to have been born in very secure, stable and most importantly healthy environment.

By the time I came back to Germany, my parents were ready to stop speaking with me or cut me out of the inheritance if I didn’t go out and get a proper job.

My girlfriend at that time was about to cancel an interview that she had secured at Philip Morris, as she’d found another job. I had missed the initial round of Application and so I told her not to cancel and that I would go in her place instead.
I went into the interview and after a few more hurdles with the company, they offered me the job. I ended up working for Philip Morris International for 13 years from 1994- 2007, which included time spent in Munich, Melbourne, Tokyo, and Madrid.

It was during this time that I met my wife Katrin; she worked for an advertising agency. I decided she was the one and I spent a year of my life trying to prove to her that I was the one for her. We got married in 1999 and moved to Melbourne.

My last years with Philip Morris were spent in Madrid, Spain, and our twins were also born while we were there. Lilly and Paul were born in 2006 and I had promised my wife that when we had kids we’d go back to Australia so once they were born we started to work out how to make that happen.

While I was still in Spain, I was hired for as the Marketing Director for a job at Red Bull and we moved to Sydney when the kids were nine months old. I worked with RedBull from 2006 until early 2011 but as everything has to come to an end, so did this. There was an internal shift within the company and I was getting the word that I couldn’t stay in Australia, that people were looking to transfer me to Hong Kong or Austria maybe, but we were so close to permanent residency so we decided to part with Red Bull.

Then, through yet another amazing coincidence, I was tapped on the shoulder by a private equity company who was in the beverage industry, looking for someone who could help them in the Asia Pacific to launch a German energy drink called 28 Black.
After a few years of “expensive learnings”, through which I also was able to secure the Distribution Rights for USA’s #1 Iced Tea, AriZona, I ended up buying the Asia Pacific Distribution business from the Private Equity company.

Level Beverages

Since 2013, I have been building the LeVeL Beverages business whilst working on my own idea for a soft-drink.
I had hoped that by using the existing portfolio, I would be able to build sufficient trade relationships as a platform for my own beverage to have a fighting chance within the industry.

And now, I’ve been able to introduce LeVeL Lemonade.

With my current portfolio of Arizona and 28 Black, I am in the business of ‘better-for-you’ beverages, not necessarily ‘good-for-you’ and I believe that is a very important differentiation, I believe in ‘better-for-you’ but my drinks do have sugar and unapologetically so.

When it comes to better for you in drinks, it comes down the benefits. It could be a protein or a probiotic, it can’t just be a drink anymore. The main thing at the moment in sparkling drinks is Kombucha. I imagine people drink it for the added benefits, but really I don’t really like it.
So for me, while the growth rate is amazing, I assume the portion of people who don’t like it is still the vast majority. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a fizzy drink that appeals to people like me. I love sparkling Soft-drinks. I love lemonade. I am somewhat concerned about my sugar intake, and I take a magnesium supplement every day.

So I thought: Why not develop a drink that has just the right LEVEL (hence the name) of ingredients.

This lead me to the construction of a drink that is lemon based, with proper sparkle and then we experimented with lots of vitamins. But I wanted to offer a drink that in people’s mind is a soft drink, and only as a second consideration a healthy drink;. We ended up going with high dosages of Magnesium and Vitamin C, as they worked well with flavour and are something that many Australians are deficient in.

Thoughts on the future

I owe a lot those people who back my venture, be that brand owners of Be that the brand owners of AriZona (USA) and  28 Black (Germany), or the trade partners who gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I am currently facing the situation that LeVel Lemonade Sales exceed the production capacity and while this seems like a nice problem to have, it is horrible and we are working relentlessly to increase capacity.

Yet – there is good reason to be optimistic too. It seems people like the idea of a high magnesium Lemonade…and as I have learnt from Bohemian Rhapsody lately: “Fortune favours the bold” – I hope they are right!


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