In what is being hailed as a real-life "It's a Wonderful Life" story, a retiring Minnesota grocer has decided to give away his three-store company to his 400 employees.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribunereports that 70-year-old Joe Lueken, who has spent the last 46 years building Lueken's Village Foods into a successful enterprise, is ready to sell the business. Lueken has received multiple offers from large supermarket chains but instead decided to do something extraordinary for his employees-- he's literally giving away the store to his workers. Three stores, to be exact; two in Bemidji, Minnesota and one in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
"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."
In January, Lueken and his family will begin the process of transferring ownership of the company to the employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP). Each worker will receive stock shares based on their pay and years of employment at the store.
Brent Sicard, who started working as a night janitor at a Village Foods store in 1998, will become the company's CEO.
Sicard told ABC News that Lueken was a selfless boss who has "always put money back into the business."
"There were years when his managers made more than he did, everything considered," Sicard, who has worked his way up to manager, said.
Other employees hailed Lueken's decision to give them the company.
"He's rockin' awesome," 41-year-old Maria Svare, who has worked at the store for two and a half years, told the Star-Tribune. "He chose to protect his people. Being owners will make us care more about our work. It gives us something to call your own and gives you a more comfortable retirement to look forward to."
Lueken told ABC News that his decision "wasn't just the best option, it was the only option." He said the move was best for Bemidji, a town of 13,000 in the remote northern part of the state.
Lueken said that he looked forward to traveling around the United States and spending time with his wife and grandchildren after he retires.
This isn't the first time that ownership of a company has been gifted to its employees. Two years ago, Bob Moore gave his Oregon grocery store to his employees, also through an ESOP.