After spending nearly 46 years building and running his successful Lueken’s Village Foods chain of grocery stores, Joe Lueken, 70, announced earlier this month that he is giving away his business to his nearly 400 employees.
“My employees are largely responsible for any success I’ve had, and they deserve to get some of the benefits of that,” said Lueken. “You can’t always take. You also have to give back.”
Yup, he’s literally giving away his three stores (two in Bemidji, Minn., and a third in Wahpeton, N.D.) to his staff.
“[H]e and his family will start transferring ownership of the three-store chain on January 1 to an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program), in which each employee will own stock. The number of shares will be based on their salary and years of service,” ABC News reports.
When Lueken, the son of a baker, was asked why he chose to give away his business rather than sell it, he answered by saying it “was the right thing to do.”
“He considered other options, including selling out to a private buyer; but when he talked to his family about it, his wife and four sons agreed that handing it off to the employees made sense, considering how much his employees, past and present, had done for him,” ABC News notes.
“It wasn’t just the best option: It was the only option,” said Lueken, adding that it was best for the community.
But this is not the first time Mr. Lueken’s uncommon generosity has benefitted Bemidji. Indeed, according to Minneapolis Star-Tribune, his kindness and willingness to give back has made him something of a local legend:
Lueken is a staunch supporter of several local charities and causes, including the Bemidji State University Foundation.
In the 1990s, around the same time Lueken’s Parkinson’s disease was diagnosed, he made a generous donation that helped that foundation give full scholarships to needy students.
An early recipient went on to become a brain surgeon, and in 2007 he repaid Lueken by assisting in an operation to implant electrodes in his brain, slowing the tremors that were making life difficult. He still shakes some, but the former baker jokes that it helps him dispense sugar onto his store’s doughnuts.
Earlier this week, Penny Echternach, executive director of the local Sanford Health Foundation, showed up at the store and had Lueken paged.
“I just wanted to give you this and a hug,” she said, presenting a gift basket, a thank-you for helping the local hospital buy a robotic surgery device.
“He’s the most generous man and such a neat guy. He gives back to the community in so many ways,” Echternach said, though, in keeping with his wishes, she wouldn’t say how much he’d given.
Leuken, who says his retirement plans will be split between traveling the U.S. with his wife and seeing his grandkids, will be succeeded as CEO by Brent Sicard, an employee who started in 1998 as night janitor and worked his way up the ladder.
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Featured image courtesy Lueken’s Village Foods