"It's a Wonderful Life" has come to life in Bemidji, Minn., with a hero as public-spirited as the George Bailey of the Capra classic movie.
Grocery mogul Joe Lueken, 70, literally is giving away the store, to his 400 employees.
After 46 years running Lueken's Village Foods, he 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.
Two of Village Foods' stores are in Bemidji; a third is in Wahpeton, N.D.
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Asked by ABC News what prompted him to give away his business, Lueken says it just struck him as 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.
"It wasn't just the best option," says Lueken. "It was the only option." It was too, he thinks, best for the community.
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According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Lueken has been famous for years for his generosity to local charities and causes, including the Sanford Health Foundation and the Bemidji State University Foundation.
Lueken tells ABC that after he came down with Parkinson's disease in the 1990s, doctors recommended he have electrodes implanted in his brain to help control his trembling. It wasn't until he was being prepped for the operation, he says, that he realized the surgeon was a man whose education he'd helped pay for. That made him feel a lot better, he says, about having the procedure.
Brent Sicard, an employee who started at Village Foods in 1998 as night janitor, will be the company's new CEO and president.
Sicard says he first came to Lueken's attention when, every morning at 3:30, Lueken "would come crashing through the doors and start restocking the aisles. It would be just him and I and a few bakers, that early in the morning."
Lueken promoted Sicard to produce manager, then he just kept moving up, a beneficiary of Lueken's promote-from-within philosophy.
For years, says Sicard, Lueken took no salary. "He's always put money back into the business. There were years when his managers made more than he did, everything considered."
Leuken, asked what he will do now that he can take time off, says that after his wife has an operation in January, the two hope to do some traveling around the U.S. "and to see the grand kids."
Sicard says he's not so sure. "My guess is, he'll find ways to continue walking through the store, pointing out to me displays that need better signage."