Pemium Cola.jpg  Most of us have cut our teeth and careers on the notion of business competition, survival of the fittest and dog eating dog. Turns out that's very narrow view.

Premium Cola is just one of myriad examples of successful businesses that are taking a more collaborative, ecosystem approach.

Premium Cola is a small beverage company located in Hamburg Germany. It has been on the market for over fifteen years employing a very unusual business model. It has no office and no actual boss. Members of the company choose which percent of their time they are going to work for the company. For some members Premium is sort of a hobby next to their actual work or studies, for others it is a full-time job. Decision-making is done based on the principle of consensual democracy. Business decisions, finances and investments are discussed and voted on via an online forum. If one member of the collective votes nay, the proposal is deemed rejected. Premium Cola professes a desire to exemplify and promote a fair, ecological and socially viable economic model in its highest form.

Company founder, Uwe Lübbermann, who goes by the title Main Moderator, explained that the decision to limit distribution to German speaking countries within a 600 KM radius is due both their unique governance structure which requires a common language and concern about carbon footprint.3 Their business model includes the use and re-use of glass only (no plastic) beverage bottles. Lübbermann explains that they don’t deliver beyond that range, “Due to the ecological limits of our planet.” However, in a very unique approach, Premium Cola freely offers their recipe and expertise to companies wanting to replicate their model. Lübbermann has helped found nine other beverage companies at no cost. He explains that this means Premium now has friends in the beverage industry and they cooperate rather than compete.

The concept of collaboration is at the heart of the Premium Cola business model. The company does not distinguish between internal or external stakeholders. They currently have approximately 50 sales people (all people who have reached out to help establish local distribution outlets), eight members of the organization team and 1,680 commercial partners including trucking companies and retail outlets. In a very unique strategy Premium Cola offers anti-volume discounts to smaller distributors because they have proportionally higher transportation costs. As a result they have a relatively high percentage of small vendors. This helps stabilize those small businesses but also provides Premium with security by having a greater diversity of vendors. Lübbermann is proud of the fact that in fourteen years they’ve never signed an official contract with any of their partners and they have never had a lawsuit. He explained that, “The product we sell isn’t just the drink; it’s caring for everyone involved in the process.”

Everybody in the company, including Lübbermann, earns 18 euros per hour, plus 2 euros more per child, 1.50 euros for work spaces and additional for handicapped people at the same percentage of their handicap. Employees continue to be paid even if illness, or life challenges such as divorce or family crises prevent them from working. In one case an employee was granted this benefit for ten months before she was able to return to work. Lübbermann explained that such security is one of the “hidden salaries” of the Premium Cola business model. Other hidden salaries include personal freedom, as employees work when they want, dress how they want and are openly encouraged to give their honest opinions about all business matters. Another benefit is personal development opportunities. Employees can redesign and evolve their own jobs. Collaborative members vote on the redesigned position. Lübbermann explained that having reach, or being a change agent is another hidden salary. Lübbermann is often invited to speak and consult about the unique Premium Cola approach and he makes a point to encourage other members of the collaborative to engage in these outreach activities.

Premium Cola intentionally limits its growth to ten percent per year because they do not want to rely on outside investors or be beholden to banks. This was a lesson learned through trial and error. In 2012, demand for their product grew very quickly and the company was unable to pay employees and commercial partners on time. In that case, demonstrating the collaborative culture, their two largest wholesalers volunteered to pay ahead of schedule in order to benefit the entire collaborative. Since then Premium Cola has monitored and capped its growth rate.

In addition, moderate growth is intended to avoid stressing employees by having to train them too fast. Finally, according to Lübbermann, the intentionally moderated growth is designed to prevent rapidly changing the Premium Cola culture by adding too many new people too quickly. Lübbermann reports, “We don´t advertise, because we don´t want to get on people´s nerves – and we don´t want people buy bottles and pay us for getting on their nerves with a part of their purchase. We don´t issue press releases, as we do not want to influence the media, and we deny offers like “send us 10 cases and we will do a nice text” because buying positive media is evil.”

The moderate growth rate and intentional localization reflects Lübbermann recognition that we cannot continue to consume natural resources beyond the limits of the planet. He said, “We have to get back to a culture or society where we have an amount of income and things that is enough.”
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Cylvia is an award winning New Economy leader who is known for speaking truth to power.  She is a smart systems thinker who understands and is able to describe the deeper connections between seemingly unrelated issues.  She is a gifted writer and speaker and is the former First Lady of Oregon.  

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