Lueken’s to become employee-owned: Joe Lueken will take on lesser role, provide guidance
BEMIDJI – It seems everyone in Bemidji has a story about Joe Lueken.
There’s the small business owner who got his start thanks to a financial contribution from Lueken and the confidence that he could do it, the lifetime resident who needed a field to start a youth football program, or the doctor who got through college thanks to a scholarship that Lueken helped launch.
But you likely won’t hear those stories from Lueken.
“He’s very reluctant to brag about himself,” said Bill Beyer, board president of the Bemidji Community Food Shelf.
In the roughly five decades he’s been in the community, Lueken has touched many people to varying degrees while overseeing his family business Lueken’s Village Foods. But last week, store employees were told that he was selling the company – to them. On Jan. 1, Lueken’s will begin the process of becoming an employee-owned business.
“It’s not just a job anymore, they’re part of it,” Lueken said of the roughly 200 employees at Lueken’s, which was honored in June as a 2012 Star Tribune Top Workplace. “And any success that they reap, they’ll benefit from it; and not only them but their families.”
At the same time, Lueken, 70, is transitioning into semi-retirement over the next few months – though he admits he can’t stop all at once. Those who know him expect to still see him around, helping out at the stores and saying a friendly “hello” to everyone that walks by.
“I asked him, ‘So you’re going to retire to 40 hours a week now?’” laughed Brent Sicard, acting president of Lueken’s. Sicard said he expects to tap Lueken for guidance in the future.
Lueken said he plans on taking some extra time out for traveling and being with family. His four sons and three grandchildren live out of state.
“It’s time,” Lueken said.
Lueken first got a taste for working in the food industry when he greased pans in his father’s bakery at age 7, getting paid 26 cents a week.
In 1966, he started as a manager at the first Lueken’s store in the downtown Bemidji, which was owned by his brother. Eventually, Lueken bought him out. He later opened a larger store on the north side of town, which has expanded over the years. The south store followed in 2000.
Sicard first got to know Lueken when he was working for another company in town, but his only job was overnight janitor at Lueken’s. He remembers Lueken often coming in at 3:30 a.m. to stock shelves.
“He’s very hands-on,” Sicard said.
Sicard eventually got a job at Lueken’s and moved up the ladder.
Sicard said that he has passed that attitude onto his sons. He said when they would come to visit the store and see that the lines were backed up, they would jump in and help start bagging groceries.
“I know where they got that from,” Sicard said.
That hard-working attitude has translated into his community involvement. He sits on several boards in town and is known for his frequent generosity.
Ross Lewis, owner of Ross Lewis Sign Co., was working for Bemidji Sign Co. as a general installer when he got to know Lueken through a couple jobs he did for him.
“Even in that limited amount of time he acted like he’d known you for years,” Lewis said.
Lewis said Lueken not only gave him some financial backing to start his own business, but also the confidence that he’d be able to do it.
“He got me started in my own business,” he said.
After his brother was killed in a car accident in 1994, Wes Hegna wanted to start a youth football program, something they always talked about as kids, in his honor. It took a while to get off the ground, but the program got a major boost from Lueken when he called Hegna and floated the idea of using the Bemidji State University Foundation land for football practice.
Through the Bemidji State University Foundation, Lueken was a driving force behind launching BSU’s Community Appreciation Day seven years ago, said Rob Bollinger, executive director for university advancement at BSU.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone like Joe,” he said.
The store’s sale to his employees, which will start gradually at the beginning of the year until it’s 100 percent employee-owned in about five years, is consistent with his values, said his son Jeff Lueken.
He said the idea sprouted a couple years ago when he asked his dad what his plans for the store were. They thought about having at least one his sons take it over, but the fact that they live on the coasts made it infeasible, Jeff Lueken said. But the thought of selling it to an outside group, which would likely result in the loss of local management jobs, wasn’t appealing either, he added.
Jeff Lueken said the community will benefit from the sale as jobs will stay here and employees will have the opportunity to grow their wealth.
“The larger benefactor is the community,” he said.