Recently we had the privilege of hearing from Mergon founder Francois van Niekerk, whose life and leadership have profoundly shaped our story and who we are today as Mergon. Francois shares some of the core principles that have guided him throughout his career and how he is now applying them to his latest ventures. Here is a summary of the interview.
Core to your leadership philosophy is ‘feeding the stream of life, not your own dam’. Would you elaborate on this idea?
Initially I too followed the belief that self-sufficiency was the key to success, and that I should focus on filling my ’own dam’ before looking to the needs of others (if at all). I had no ambition beyond a respectable corporate career and was making good progress when circumstances caused my life to change radically in a way I could never have anticipated.
Following the appointment of a new CEO at my workplace, it became evident that his own personal ambitions were prioritised in total disregard of what best served our employer or the rest of us. I just knew I faced an ultimate career decision – either I too would prioritise my own well-being or choose to always rather serve the best interest of my employer and colleagues. I chose to always serve ‘principle over personal gain’, which has gone on to become a core value that has shaped my life.
It was a gut-wrenching decision to leave a very comfortable and promising corporate career at age 39 to start my own business with virtually no capital. It soon became clear that failure was imminent. God graciously answered my desperate plea, rescued the business, and set me on a wonderful journey of discovering the power of surrender. To this day I remain amazed at what is possible when we let go of our own will and surrender to God’s plan.
After God blessed me with this undeserved and incredible rescue, I established the Mergon Foundation, into which an initial 30% of the business shareholding was dedicated to Kingdom work. The Kingdom ownership was progressively increased to 70%, where God effectively now serves as our controlling shareholder. Today Mergon’s operations span across five continents, creating an ever-expanding Kingdom impact. It’s a humbling privilege to walk alongside God on this journey, as we recognise that it is solely His work, and we are mere ‘stewards in amazement’.
How has your definition of success changed, or been enriched, over the years?
My definition of success turned 180-degrees. At first, I fell in line with the contemporary cultural belief that success meant accumulating wealth, status, and security. However, my perspective has since shifted as I’ve come to understand that true success is measured by how well we honour our principles and serve one another. We are successful, the extent to which we steward what God has given us.
Having a servant’s heart implies a releasing – not just of your finances, but also of the power that comes with it. My personal perspective is that the only way to have power over money is to give it away responsibly. I’ve realised it can be abused for selfish and destructive purposes. However, we can learn to wield the power of money as stewards and use it to make a meaningful impact around us.
Through the Atterbury Trust, you are involved in several charitable initiatives – perhaps most notable is your involvement in MOI (Moedertaal Ontwikkelings Inisiatief). Tell us more about MOI and how it came to be.
I’ve always had a passion for supporting mother tongue education, especially amongst South Africa’s so-called brown population. Since its establishment in 1994, Atterbury Property has allocated one-third of its shares to the Atterbury Foundation to support charitable programs, including mother tongue education. This approach aims to overcome the challenges faced by the poor due to the English-only tutoring policy, which disregards the diverse population’s need for differentiated mother tongue education up to high school and beyond.
To date, the Atterbury Trust assisted 664 severely disadvantaged matriculants in the northern provinces (with interest free repayable loans) to become university graduates in accounting, science, lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, etc. Over the 29 years an average pass rate of 95% was achieved.
When Mergon moved to the Cape in 2015 – and with me well into the retirement years – I wanted to do the same for brown students of whom at least 90% are Afrikaans mother tongue speakers. But I soon discovered the pass rate at the University of Stellenbosch for such students to be as low as 5%. Apart from being disadvantaged by a substandard school system and a growing socio-economic divide, most of the students find English-only tutoring to be ‘one bridge too far’. So we decided to assist high school learners toward a sound matric education, while also equipping them with the necessary life skills to thrive beyond the classroom.
MOI sponsors carefully selected, promising but underprivileged learners and places them in A-level high schools. The programme offers a holistic and customised model of support – one that takes into account the social, emotional and physical well-being of the individual as well as their academic needs. To bridge the socio-economic and cultural gap, most are placed in school hostels and outfitted with school uniforms, electronic devices, books, pocket money, and a holistic wellness programme.
In MOI’s fourth year, all 77 learners in 14 A-level Western Cape schools have posted a 100% pass rate. The programme has progressed beyond its initial phase, and it’s evident that the MOI example could realistically benefit many thousands of disadvantaged youth across all South African language groups. Beyond just simply ‘passing’ matric, the programme prepares young people for solid careers. Our hope is that the achieved and ongoing results will encourage local and international benefactors to come aboard.
Any worthwhile vocation requires an honest, relevant, and innovative educational approach, at all levels and in a befitting language, to keep pace with a rapidly evolving job market.
The Mandarin edition of our Mergon testimony is on the shelves! Tell us how this came to be, and what are your hopes/expectations for the book?
At a testimony talk in Macau near Hong Kong, I met Chinese Christians who urged me to share the Mergon story and publish the book in Mandarin. With 150 million Christians in China and a remaining 1,2 billion unreached people, the prospect really excited me. But the task wasn’t easy. We had to find a translator who could capture the essence of Christianity behind the principles of the Mergon testimony and convey it intuitively – all in a country where Christian publications are banned. Additionally, every prospective publication is stringently approved by the government. But we succeeded in preserving the essence of the Mergon testimony – the book was approved late last year and will be launched this year. We’re very excited to see what God does there.
The reworked 4th English edition is currently available and I’m deeply grateful for the feedback I frequently receive on how the Mergon story is impacting people locally and beyond our borders.
Your life has been full of ups and downs, but witnessing God’s work in rare ways has given you a unique perspective. Knowing what you know today, what would the Francois of today say to the Francois of 40 years ago?
Looking back on my life, I would tell him first get to know yourself. I’m impulsive by nature. But placing your trust in God requires you to resist your natural instincts and stop to wait on Him. I found this very hard until I got to realise that His timing and the outcomes are always better, and every step contributes to His greater plan. I didn’t have the ability or vision to build Mergon – but in spite of my inability and unbelief at times, God has been – and still is – unfolding His plan for Mergon.
Working with the people at Mergon has been a privilege beyond measure. Looking back on my experiences, both personal and professional, I am reminded that God’s faithfulness has been the constant thread throughout it all.
Order your copy of ‘Doing Business Differently’ here to read more of Francois’s testimony and learn how to partner with God in using your business to ‘feed the streams of life’.