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Bemidji grocer's retirement plan generates worldwide buzz

Joe Lueken, who will be selling three grocery stores in Bemidji, Minn., and Wahpeton, N.D., starting next month, was working as usual early Saturday at one of his two Bemidji stores. Lueken said he's received interview requests from around the globe. Steve Wagner / Forum Communications

BEMIDJI, Minn. - The media attention is enough to make Joe Lueken blush.

By sunrise Saturday, he was reading a newspaper at the store bearing his name on Bemidji's south side, surprised by recent media requests from around the globe.

"It's very humbling," Lueken said. "The scope of things got way bigger than I thought it would be."

It's not the type of attention he expected after announcing he would transfer ownership of three stores - two in Bemidji and another in Wahpeton, N.D. - to hundreds of employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Program starting Jan. 1.

"I guess it's really resonating with people right now," said Brent Sicard, tapped as president and CEO for the semi-retiring Lueken, said of the story. "It's kind of crazy. ... This is the right story at the right time."

Reporters from China, India, Germany and the United Kingdom have emailed requesting interviews. Radio stations across the U.S. and Canada want Lueken to share his story. TV reporters from Fargo and Duluth have been in contact with him.

And then there's the roll call of TV's biggest news shows who have called: ABC's "Good Morning America," "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," "Fox and Friends," CNBC, CBS News and the "Today" show want interviews.

Lueken, not expecting the volume of media requests, agreed to an exclusive first interview with "Good Morning America," much to the disappointment of other national media. He's scheduled to be on GMA's Dec. 10 show.

"We called everybody with regrets," Sicard said.

Some media gave convincing pitches in hopes Lueken would reconsider the GMA exclusive, particularly since the story of Lueken's plan was first printed three months ago in the Bemidji Pioneer and recently in the Star Tribune.

The Minneapolis newspaper, which honored Lueken's Village Foods earlier this year as a 2012 Star Tribune Top Workplace, followed the Bemidji Pioneer article with a story titled, "A thankful Bemidji grocer shares his success with his employees," on the day after Thanksgiving.

"When you're true to your word and it benefits you, it really doesn't mean anything," said Sicard, adding that keeping the promise to ABC was about integrity.

Lueken said keeping his word was important, while the flood of calls requesting interviews exceeded his "wildest dreams."

While Lueken's decision to sell to employees is a major part of the story, there are other elements worth noting, Sicard said.

Nationally, there's a large rift between workers and employers, and disillusionment over executive pay and bonuses. Lueken said there's a lot of negative news, and people crave to hear about something positive.

Sicard offers more reasons for his boss's story resonating with so many: Lueken's legacy of giving to others and track record of rewarding workers who rise through the ranks based on merit.

"This is the perfect way for the handoff to happen," Sicard said. "We want to keep doing what Joe did."