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Image: Joe Lueken
David Joles  /  Courtesty Star Tribune
On Nov. 21, Joe Lueken began his day at 4 a.m. at the north Bemidji Lueken's Village Foods store. Lueken, who is transferring ownership of his three stores to his employees, loves to share his motto in life: "Do the right thing."
By
TODAY contributor
updated 11/27/2012 6:17:23 PM ET 2012-11-27T23:17:23

Just in time for Christmas, a retiring Minnesota grocery store owner is giving his roughly 400 employees quite a gift — ownership of his three stores.

Instead of accepting any of the multiple offers he received from large national chains to purchase his stores, Joe Lueken, 70, will transfer ownership of his two Lueken’s Village Foods in Bemidji, Minn., and another one in Wahpeton, N.D., to his employees as part of an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). The transfer of ownership from the Lueken family to the employees will begin on Jan. 1, and will not cost the employees any money.

The amount of shares each employee receives will be based on length of service and salary. The program is expected to pay the Lueken family off for the sale in three to five years, according to a report by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“My employees are largely responsible for any success I've had, and they deserve to get some of the benefits of that," Lueken told the Star Tribune. "You can't always take. You also have to give back."

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After being informed by his two sons that they were not interested in taking over the business, Lueken and his family came up with the employee stock ownership plan to transfer ownership.

"We could have hired a gunslinger from Minneapolis, but that didn't sit well because the reward wouldn't go to the proper people," Lueken's son Jeff told the Star Tribune.

After 46 years in the business, Lueken, who has Parkinson's disease, is retiring to travel the world with his wife. Lueken announced last week that Brent Sicard, who started in a janitor job at Lueken’s in 1998 and worked his way up to a top management position, will take over as the company’s president and chief executive officer.

Lueken has acted like a regular guy even as his business grew, driving vans for the company and hanging out in the break room with the other employees over the years, according to the Star Tribune.

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"Joe would arrive at 3:30 every morning," Sicard told the newspaper. "No one could outstock Joe. No one could outwalk Joe. No one can outthink Joe. He can walk through a $2 million warehouse and tell you within a few thousand dollars how much is in there."

Lueken has also been giving to charitable causes for years, helping the Bemidji State University Foundation give scholarships to students in need.

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