Despite offers from large independent chains, the small business’ retiring owner Joe Lueken will reportedly transfer his stores--two in Bemidji, Minn. and one in Wahpeton, N.D.--to his employees starting Jan. 1, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"My employees are largely responsible for any success I've had, and they deserve to get some of the benefits of that," said 70-year-old Lueken, a South Dakota native who opened his business in 1966, to the Tribune. "You can't always take. You also have to give back."
The ESOP qualified retirement program will pay off the Lueken family for the sale in three to five years, leaving employees with company shares based on length of service and salary--but at no cost to them. Since Leuken is not requiring his employees to pay for their shares, he is effectively giving away the business for free.
"He chose to protect his people," Lueken's front-end manager Maria Svare told the Tribune. "Being owners will make us care more about our work."
In the past, other small business owners have used an ESOP to reward their employees. In 2010, Bob Moore gave his whole-grain production business Bob's Red Mill to his 209 employees on his 81st birthday, according to The Huffington Post. That Christmas, Sawbones Worldwide's founder Foss Miller did the same.
"So many of the employees have worked here for many, many years," Miller told Inc. in 2010. "Providing them a great retirement when they leave—it just made more sense and felt better and better."