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Torch passed in Lueken’s ceremony

Lueken’s Village Foods CEO Brent Sicard, center, cuts the red ribbon celebrating the transfer of the company ownership from Joe Lueken to store employees. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – The phrases “passing the torch” and “handing off the baton” were thrown around a lot Monday afternoon.

Call it what you may – filling big shoes, leaving behind a legacy, and so on – what’s happening at Lueken’s Village Foods is a heartwarming story that has caught the attention of people across the globe.

And with the swipe of an oversized pair of scissors, Lueken’s employees ceremoniously celebrated the transfer of store ownership from Joe Lueken. The long-time owner of the stores announced last fall that he was planning to give the three stores – two in Bemidji and one in North Dakota – to his employees as part of an employee stock ownership plan.

“Every parent thinks their child will be remarkable,” said company CEO Brent Sicard. “In a similar way, we feel this company is remarkable and will become even more remarkable in the future.”

As the advertising manager, Nick Moe had to help plan the media and ads for the coming transfer, meaning he knew about it before many employees.

“It became torture not to tell anybody,” Moe said, adding that he and his colleagues were very excited about the news once it sunk in.

While the event Monday was mostly ceremony, as the ESOP process began in late December, Moe said it was needed. Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce ambassadors presented a certificate to the new owners before the red ribbon was cut.

“I think it was for the community to see that this store belongs to the community,” Moe said.

Taking over ownership of the company will mean employees will be in charge of their own destiny, and their jobs are more secure than had Lueken decided to sell the company to a third party, said Sicard, who began working at the store as a night janitor more than a decade ago.

Sicard said the goal is to be 100 percent employee-owned in three years.

The story has caught national and worldwide media attention. On New Year’s Day, Lueken’s story was broadcast on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and Sicard said CBS plans to come at the end of the month.

 “Joe and his family have done so much for this community,” Sicard said. “They came here with almost nothing and they built up this store, this company with diligence, through their sacrifice, through their hard work and most importantly I feel, because of their strong moral fiber.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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