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Economics, Inspiring Stories

Fantastic Friday: Joe Lueken Edition

Minneapolis News - Nov. 21, 2012In a month which has seen such tremendous leadership coming from several CEOs as they threatened and in other cases, actually fired employees because Barack Obama was re-elected, as well as paid themselves large bonuses in advance of filing for bankruptcy, it’s refreshing to hear of such unique stories like Joe Lueken’s, a Minnesota grocery store owner who has such respect for his employees that he’s giving them the company.

Lueken, who has spent 46 years building his small business in the town of Bemidji, Minnesota, is now 70 and ready to retire.  But instead of selling his successful business to a large independent chains, Lueken is handing the company over to the people that he’s worked with for almost 5 decades.

On Jan. 1, Lueken’s Village Foods, with two supermarkets in Bemidji and another in Wahpeton, N.D., will begin transferring ownership to its approximately 400 employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP).

Lueken said he had multiple offers to sell to large independent chains and might have gotten more money that way. But he and his family believe that selling to workers will be better for them, the business and this north-central Minnesota city of 13,000 people.

“My employees are largely responsible for any success I’ve had, and they deserve to get some of the benefits of that,” Lueken said earlier this week. “You can’t always take. You also have to give back.”

Employees say Lueken’s decision, which won’t require them to pay anything for their shares in the business, multiplied the high esteem they already held for their boss.

There are certainly other examples of owners using ESOP, “a stock equity plan that enables employees to acquire ownership in a company [where] the employees form a trust, which then purchases shares of the company. Employees generally contribute to the trust through payroll deductions.”  However, Lueken’s case is unique in that “he won’t even require his employees to pay anything for their shares, effectively giving the company to the employees for free.”

And in a way, this action and appreciation and orientation towards his community and workers, even more than the hard work and success that he demonstrated over his career in building Lueken’s Village Foods, may prove to be Lueken’s lasting legacy.

Lueken said the ESOP fits with his desire to direct profits back into the community through salaries and causes important to workers rather than to some absentee corporation.

The program will pay off the Lueken family in three to five years and leave employees with shares based on length of service and salary, at no cost to them. If the company keeps growing, the shares’ value will too, and the group is obligated to repurchase shares of any employee who leaves or retires.

“The whole move revolves around people, not things or money,” Jeff Lueken said. “It’s about allowing people to grow with the business and send their kids to college and have a great retirement, and even to express themselves at work.”

We need to make sure somebody stops this guy before this craziness spreads…

Have a Fantastic Friday everyone!

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