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Dave Olson, Published December 30 2012

Wahpeton grocery store employees relish new ownership status

WAHPETON, N.D. – Joe Lueken knows he could have sold his three grocery stores – one in Wahpeton and two in Bemidji, Minn. – to a big grocery chain and made good money doing it.

Instead, he’s selling the operations to his workers through an employee stock ownership program: his way of saying “thank you” for helping make his 46 years in business a success.

“They’re very good employees. I’m proud of all of them,” Lueken said Sunday, the day ownership shifted to workers.

Workers at the Wahpeton Econofoods store had only good things to say about Lueken on Sunday as they contemplated the potential rewards and responsibilities of ownership.

“I think we have great people. I feel we’re strong, and we’re looking forward to the challenges,” said Janea Ries, a customer service manager.

“We’re taking on something great,” she added. “We are becoming employee-owned.”

Asked how ownership may change things, Ries said: “I think we’ll step it up even more, taking pride in what we have.”

Daryl Miller, a fellow customer service manager, said he and the other workers appreciate the opportunity they are being given.

“This is something he (Lueken) did not have to do. He could have sold to someone else for a larger purchase price. But, he wanted to give back to the people who have worked for him for many, many years,” Miller said.

Under the employee stock ownership program, the approximately 400 workers who took ownership of the stores Sunday will pay for them out of store profits over the course of several years.

To participate, employees must be 21, work an average of 1,000 hours or more a year and they must have worked for the company at least a year.

Lueken, who is 70 and ready to retire, said he had been looking at three options:

Sell to another company; continue to run the company himself; or sell to his employees.

“I could have sold out to a chain, but the only thing is, the only one who benefits is the buyer,” Lueken said.

“The third option was to create an ESOP for the employees,” he added. “That way the employees benefit – present and future employees – and the community benefits. So, that’s why I did it. It was the right thing to do.”

Jonathan Sitte, 33, who has worked at the meat counter at the Wahpeton store for nearly three years, said the company has been good to him.

And though his college degree is in fine arts, he’s contemplating making a career in the grocery business.

“I like it. I have fun here,” he said.

“When I first came here,” he added, “I was still growing up. I’ve learned a lot about responsibility.”

Matt Dockter, a resident of Wahpeton, stopped at Econofoods on Sunday to pick up a few things.

He called the employee ownership program fantastic for the community.

“I always try to support local stores and just try to take care of the smaller companies,” he said.

Many customers feel the same, according to Miller.

“We’ve had a lot of compliments, a lot of congratulations,” he said. “They’re really enthusiastic for us.”

Workers at the Wahpeton store said the coming year will bring more details about how the ownership program will work, but their anticipation was evident.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” said Farah Grey, a cashier who also works the service counter.

After five years with the store, Grey said she enjoys the job immensely.

“They’ve been very good to me here,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555

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