Employee Appreciation: A Boss So Grateful for His Workers, He's Leaving Them His Business

Retiring at the end of the year, Joe Lueken is handing over his successful grocery store company to his employees.
Employees at Lueken's Village Foods are about to become business owners thanks to their retiring boss. (Photo: Jochen Sand/Getty Images)
Dec 1, 2012· 1 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

In recent weeks the media has been saturated with headlines detailing the depths of corporate depravity, all of them surrounding one aligning theme; executives who exploit their workers for the sake of shoving more money into their already-stuffed pockets. (Hello, Hostess!)

But one man is proving that neither decency nor generosity are dead in modern America; Joe Lueken, a Minnesota grocer, announced that upon his retirement, he’s leaving his entire business to his employees.

Lueken’s Village Foods, which owns and operates three stores in total, will transfer ownership of the company starting on Jan. 1 to some 400 employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Program.

Lueken, who’s been building his company for the last 46 years, reported to the Minnesota Star Tribune that at 70 years old, he’s finally ready to retire and travel the world with his wife, Janice.

But why not go out with a bang, and sell the company to a Kroegers or Lucky’s and turn a big profit?

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

To make sure it’s a true gift, Lueken took provisions so that employees won't have to pay any money for the stocks they’re about to own.

As if this story needed to get any more heartwarming, the man who will take over as president and CEO is Brent Sicard, a longtime Lueken employee who started as a janitor in the 90s and worked his way up to management.

Lueken is being hailed as a hometown hero, but according to MSNBC, his generosity is simply par for the course; the almost-retired grocer has a long-standing reputation as a man who actively donates to charity, including funding scholarships for the Bemidji State University Foundation.

So why does Lueken have such a depth of empathy and appreciation for his employees, while big corporations seem unable to fathom the consequences of their actions when they force employees to work on Thanksgiving Day or demand they take multiple pay cuts while covertly cashing in on bonuses?

The answer may lie with Sicard, who told the Tribune, “Joe would arrive at 3:30 every morning. No one could outstock Joe. No one could outwalk Joe. No one can outthink Joe. He can walk through a $2 million wharehouse and tell you within a few thousand dollars how much is in there.”

And perhaps there it is: Lueken didn’t sequester himself in an office to absorb numbers on a piece of paper, but instead, maintained the kind of work he was asking of others, stocking shelves and driving vans and showing up long before dawn. Participating in the actual work may just be why he never lost his appreciation for what his employees accomplished every day.

Would you leave your business to your employees? Let us know in the Comments.