In this episode of Our Mergon Journey podcast, Mergon board chairman Dick van der Walt provides insights into Mergon’s leadership transition around 2008, when founder Francois van Niekerk handed over the reins to Pieter Faure and his new team. This article captures highlights of their candid conversation. To hear the full story, enjoy listening to the podcast here.
The conversation kicked off with Pieter diving into Dick’s long-standing connection with Mergon, which began when Francois requested Dick’s assistance in securing a tax-exempt status for the Atterbury Trust. There was an immediate connection between the two men, fuelled by their shared passion for the Kingdom.
Dick was struck by something truly remarkable when he observed how Francois positioned the trust and his relationship to it—a perspective rarely encountered in his line of work. He shared, ‘In most instances, trusts are designed in a way that allows the founder to amend the outcome of the original donation. However, Francois wanted to donate the shares in his business with no ability for him or his family to ever revoke or control that commitment. He referred to it as his ‘irrevocable commitment’.
Dick was truly moved by this decision, as it revealed Francois’ sincere belief of being a steward, not the owner, of Mergon’s capital. The impression it left was so profound that years later, when asked to join the Mergon board, Dick readily accepted the offer.
Building on relationships: a solid foundation
Dick recalled, ‘Arriving at the board, I found that Francois and his team really operated the trust as a family-run entity. Due to its size and being in the initial stages of figuring out how to do Kingdom finance, it was a very organic and family-oriented environment. There was a strong emphasis on relationships and intentionality, especially considering the relatively small amounts of distributions available for the trust to oversee.’
He noted that everyone had a specific passion and a distinct set of skills that they brought into the mix, fostering a culture of deep appreciation for each other’s valuable input in building Mergon.
Dick explained, ‘I was blown away by the intentionality that could be applied to Kingdom finance. Every trustee brought a unique contribution, and that became the early foundation of Mergon’s collaborative approach—where the board of trustees and the capacity of Mergon worked together, focussing on partnerships and harnessing the unique contributions of each individual.’
This strong sense of shared purpose went on to form the bedrock of their stewardship journey.
Stepping out: embracing entrepreneurship
Fast-forwarding to 2008, Mergon had completed the sale of a technology business and built up a substantial asset base. The company was still running as a primarily family-run entity, but there was a clear sense of a strategic shift on the horizon. ‘It was a fork in the road for Mergon,’ said Pieter, ‘where the board realised that some crucial decisions needed to be made.’
Dick recalled how they reviewed their options, which included passively managing the endowment by investing in assets or pursuing a more entrepreneurial approach. ‘We chose to trust that if God had brought us to this place, He would be faithful to walk with us into the exciting possibilities of establishing a dedicated team to manage this Kingdom finance,’ Dick shared.
Francois and the team chose to embrace entrepreneurship and forge a new path.
Pieter added fondly, ‘I remember being deeply struck by Francois’ humility in making this decision. He firmly believed that this was not something he had done, it wasn’t his own entrepreneurial brilliance that brought us to this point. This was something God had done. And because we didn’t want to limit God in any way, that meant we should keep operating from place of faith, courage, and boldness.’
With this conviction at heart, Francois went on to hand over the reins to Pieter, entrusting these growing finances into his hands and those of a passionate, young team of entrepreneurs.
A new season: transitioning leadership
Despite Pieter’s relatively young age when assuming the Mergon leadership, Francois had deliberately and thoughtfully prepared the ground for his transition. Pieter reflected, ‘For years, we had spent a lot of time in his office. He would share stories about the journey and his lessons in partnership, and he would inculcate the DNA that he wanted to foster in Mergon in me and later in some of my colleagues.’
Pieter and the team experienced a dynamic balance between freedom and trust, authorising them to take entrepreneurial risks, while operating within the framework of accountability structures. He explained, ‘The board created space for the team to bring forth what God was putting on our hearts to do. We were given autonomy to run with ideas and pursue opportunities. But at the same time, we would submit these ideas to the governing board for oversight, wisdom, and co-discernment to ensure we were heading in the right direction.’ Because trust was at the very foundation of this relationship, they were able to navigate and overcome the challenges that would inevitably arise.
Some of these challenges included ‘moments of dissonance’ when the team and founder had to have the ‘tough conversations’ and navigate their differing opinions. Pieter and Dick go on in this episode to discuss these times as well as several key principles that have shaped their leadership over the years. To hear more of the stories that have shaped their journey, listen to the full episode here.