A season of transitions

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.

Laying a strong foundation

Over the years, we have received many requests from people wanting to learn more about Mergon and the values that make us who we are. To bring expression to our story, we have created the Mergon Journey podcast – a 10 episode series that delves into our history and faith journey as investment entrepreneurs, including some of the challenges we have faced and valuable lessons we have learned along the way.

In this episode of the Mergon podcast series, CEO and host, Pieter Faure, joins COO Gauché Radley and Mergon director, Almero Strauss. Together, they take a trip down memory lane and discuss Mergon’s early days, including their experiences working with the company’s founder, Francois van Niekerk. Through storytelling and candid reflection, they share on some of the values that were ingrained in Mergon’s organisational culture from the beginning and how they still steer the company today.

Mergon’s founding story

Pieter kicked off the conversation by taking us back to Mergon’s founding story in 1980. Francois van Niekerk was a 40-year-old senior manager in a large South African corporation, with a well-established career. Increasingly disillusioned with the corporate politics, Francois decided to leave the company and start his own technology business. After nine months, cashflow was drying up and the business was on the brink of collapse. It was during this time, under a Jacaranda tree, that Francois prayed to God for a breakthrough and promised to give 30% of his business to the Kingdom if rescued. Despite that 30% of a bankrupt business is not worth much, God answered his prayer, and a door was opened.

Gauché reflected on the significance of this event: ‘We have all experienced that kind of desperation at times – when there’s nowhere else to go but to God. I think God honoured Francois’ vulnerability. Francois soon realised that it was not about the promise he made to God, but the fact that he surrendered all that he had to Him. It’s that kind of ‘posture of surrender’ that laid the foundation for all that we stand for at Mergon.’

Taking ourselves out of the centre

By 2008, Mergon had grown considerably in both scale and impact, and Francois and the board of trustees made the decision to appoint a new generation of leaders to take the helm and steer Mergon towards its next phase of growth and influence. With Pieter as the newly appointed CEO, Almero also joined the team.

Almero recalls, ‘I came from a consulting background, working with large global companies. In this environment it was all about your abilities and achievements – people were often boasting about what they had done and how they contributed to the success of the company. Then I walked into Mergon. Despite achieving above-market returns, nobody wanted to boast about Mergon’s success. Francois attributed it all to God’s unmerited grace, not our own efforts. It was such a completely different way of seeing business and your role in it.’ 

Stewarding God’s resources

Almero added to this idea, recognising that Francois’ ‘revelation of who the true Owner is’ allowed him to view the business from a unique perspective. ‘From the beginning he saw himself as a steward, to manage that which God had entrusted to him. It took me a long time to get my head around this idea,’ said Almero, ‘and to eventually get my heart around it. It was a complete mindshift for me. I came to understand that we were not ‘giving money away’ at Mergon – this money was never ours in the first place. We were rather asking ‘God, how do you want to deploy these resources that are yours and meant to be used for your Kingdom?’

This notion of stewardship has been the golden thread to pull through Mergon’s history over the past four decades. It has shaped how we make decisions, where we invest, and why we view partnerships as a priority in God’s Kingdom. Almero added that a stewardship mindset has also enabled us to hold realities in tension over the years. ‘You can keep a high standard of excellence but make space for others to learn and make mistakes,’ he explained. ‘You can be uncompromising on certain principles and yet open to be challenged in your thinking.’

Letting others lead

Stewardship also extends to the influence and power that tend to go hand in hand with managing capital. Pieter explained how Francois was intentional about laying this power down and ‘creating an environment where we all could engage on an equal footing – in spite of Francois’ evident seniority and experience at that time’.

Gauché reiterated this idea, recalling his earliest memory on the job: ‘I remember walking into Mergon’s offices and seeing a framed Financial Mail article with Francois and Atterbury CEO, Louis van der Watt, on the wall. The title of the article was ‘Dare to Share’ – which I think encapsulates the heart of our founder and organisational culture still today.’

He explained, ‘Francois always made room for people in the business. When we started in 2008, we were a young team – but we received so much space to learn, risk and grow. This has repeatedly been the case in all the companies that Mergon has built up over the years -from Atterbury to Infotech to Pieter becoming CEO at Mergon at the age of thirty. Francois modeled a leadership that didn’t hold onto the power that comes with being an entrepreneur – he got out of the way to let others step in and lead.’

Embracing an entrepreneurial spirit

It took a certain level of courage to let go of the reins and entrust others with Mergon’s future. But courage, Pieter said, has always been integral to Mergon’s DNA, as reflected in the entrepreneurial culture Francois and the team have continually put into the foundation of Mergon.

It was this courage that motivated the leadership and board in 2008 to take the significant balance sheet they had built up and forego the path of capital preservation. Instead, they chose to embrace a truly entrepreneurial spirit, focussing on growing the portfolio and building businesses.

Almero reflected on the significance of this decision. He shared, ‘I don’t think we realised the consequences of that decision. It presented us with an opportunity to be truly entrepreneurial – the same opportunity we challenge ourselves to have today.’  He continued, ‘That decision opened up so many opportunities for Mergon to remain active in the business world and have a credible voice in the marketplace, walking with entrepreneurs – sharing our lives and living out our values alongside them.

So much of what was instilled in Mergon over 40 years ago, still lives on in the organisation today. Principles of prayer, generosity, partnership and excellence in stewardship. ‘I’m incredibly thankful to know that this story is multigenerational,’ concluded Pieter. ‘Key principles that shaped Francois’ legacy, still shape Mergon today.’

To learn more about the early years of Our Mergon Journey, listen to the full podcast here.

A conversation with Mergon founder, Francois van Niekerk

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’. 

Sharing our vision of Kingdom impact

Every company has an elevator pitch. With so many moving parts, you might say that Mergon needs a particularly tall building to do its pitch justice. We often hear the question asked, ‘what exactly do you do at Mergon?’ –  an understandable question, considering that Mergon is not your ‘typical fit’ in business nor ministry. We are an investment company – but not purely one; a foundation – but not only that. We partner with the business community to lead in social investment and shape the marketplace – but not solely for the sake of social development.

Mergon is rather a combination of all these elements, with a unique fit that has been shaped, we believe, over four decades by the leading of God. The path has been anything but straight and foreseeable, as God has widened our vision and taken us in often counter-intuitive directions.

In the early days Mergon saw its mission of Kingdom expansion as primarily being a funding conduit to a handful of selected ministries. This perspective has broadened, especially over the past decade, to reflect a more holistic understanding of our calling. Today we see ourselves as resource partners on the journey toward Kingdom impact. As Mergon CEO Pieter Faure puts it, ‘Everything about us – our activities, behaviours and approach to relational partnerships – pivots on this central purpose.’

So what does it mean to be a resource partner?

It means that we regard money as a critical resource, but not the only one. There are a host of complementary attributes we can bring to the relationship beyond finances, which include our networks, skills, knowledge and experience. Often these different types of ‘social capital’ cost little but have a disproportionate value for the leaders and organisations they serve.

In the investment team, we have brought mentors alongside business leaders to support them on their entrepreneurial journey. Through Ziwani, we provide practical hands-on resources as well as opportunities for Christian business leaders to connect and encourage one another to live out their marketplace calling in Africa. On the Foundation side, we create tools and opportunities for ministry leaders to grow in their leadership and organisational health and offer programmes like the ‘Healthy Leaders Journey’ for new partners to invest in their personal development.

Says Neil Hart, Mergon Foundation head: ‘Each of these leaders have their own unique story, hopes, and dreams. We want to know about them – as well as grow in our understanding of their culture, the context they operate in and the unique challenges they face. The more we can understand these realities, and sometimes relate to them, the better we will be in effectively serving our partners and strengthening their impact.’

What does it mean to be partners on a journey?

At Mergon we often refer to ourselves as ‘redemptive stewards of God’s entrusted resources’. Whether it be through our work at Ziwani, supporting and equipping the business community to shape Africa’s marketplace, or walking alongside entrepreneurs to build strong, scalable businesses – our purpose is to show something of God’s redemptive heart through partnership

We have seen how partnerships can unlock immense possibilities when people are willing to join forces and lay down their own interests in pursuit of a common goal. We’ve also seen how it requires of us humility, intentionality and perseverance. In a world where funding models and business relationships are often flawed, we have the chance to model something different – showing up in ways that reflect God’s heart.

True partnership, we believe, is not in giving a hand-out, or a hand-up — but rather in taking hands as we each bring something of value in order to bring about real change. ‘This requires us to extend respect, dignity and authenticity and to invite our partners to bring all of who they are to the relationship – their successes, their failures and their vulnerabilities,’ says Pieter. ‘This is a big ask, to expect of them to be real and to also step out on that bridge of relationship. And conversely, for us, to be trustworthy with their realness. Yet, as we better relate to their challenges, we can truly serve them.’

The reality is, none of us have all the answers to society’s problems. But the more that we can work together, and lock arms across industries and societal sectors, the more effectively we can carry the load and be amazed at the change we can bring. We can start to unlock our calling, which is to become catalytic in our partnership for Kingdom impact.

What does it mean to be catalysts for Kingdom impact?

A catalyst is a small dose of substance that, when released into the right environment, has the potential for a disproportionate effect. A small seed can sow a great harvest. Written into its design is the blueprint for an extraordinary acceleration of transformation and impact, fruitfulness and abundance.

‘In the same way, we aim to sow our ‘small seeds’ in order to be a catalytic partner that contributes to the multiplication and increase of the impactful work of our partner organisations across Africa and the Middle East,’ says Neil, ‘whether that be that in discipleship, education, skills development, training or caring for the poor, marginalised and vulnerable.’

Catalytic momentum is possible when we work together, acknowledging that each of our parts is small but essential in the bigger story God is writing.

Partnerships that level the playing field

When we as stewards of capital invest directly into businesses, impact ventures or non-profit initiatives we are no longer merely stewards of capital – we are also stewards of a relationship with the leaders of those organisations into whose hands we’ve entrusted that capital. 

We become partners on a journey and the way we engage on this journey, from the initial stages where trust is built and expectations are set, through the partnership period and right up to the point of exit – will determine whether the relationship will become one of beauty or brokenness.   

Unfortunately, the lived experience of many investors and organisational leaders points to the latter, where capital partnerships are mostly shaped by broken motives and models, to result in zero-sum, win-lose outcomes.   

The challenge for us as Christ-followers is to chart a different course, to build redemptive capital partnerships, where we accomplish great things together, whilst bringing glory to God through a beautiful relational journey.

In Philippians 2 v 3 – 4, Paul points us to a biblical foundation on which to build redemptive capital partnerships when he writes the following:

‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.’

I want to highlight three perspectives from this scripture that have shaped our Mergon journey as we’ve partnered with leaders of organisations over many years:

Firstly, it’s not about us.

This is a saying we have at Mergon to remind us that it really isn’t about us, it’s about serving the King and advancing his Kingdom. From this perspective, we can submit ourselves and our ambition to God, the true owner, our abundant source. We can bring our gifts, talents and resources to serve Him as faithful stewards.

We carry this same approach into our partner relationships as we look to serve them, and together build flourishing organisations that make positive and lasting contributions towards society whilst delivering a healthy financial return for its stakeholders.    

We build with a multi-generational rather than a short-term mindset, so that even if we only partner with a business or a ministry for a season, they might look back on that season as a definitive one that set them up for success and significance long after our partnership had run its course.

Given this backdrop, you can imagine how deeply humbling it was when, during the COVID-19 season, we faced the prospect of not being able to meet our funding commitments to our ministry partners. We communicated this to them, with a commitment that we would continue to walk by faith and would distribute whatever funds came in, on a month-to-month basis. It was so hard for us to share this because it felt like we had in some way failed our partners. 

Yet we were blown away by their response – they encouraged us, they prayed for us and some partners even offered to forego their funding grants in favour of other partners who might have greater need. Similarly, our investment and financing partners rallied around us and pulled out all the stops in order to support our cashflows to ensure we were able to meet our distribution commitments without suffering any permanent value destruction.

It was such a testimony to us of God’s provision and an encouragement to continue to be open-handed rather than driven by fear and selfish ambition in our partnership approach.

Secondly, we surrender power to reframe partnership.

Whether or not we care to admit it, capital comes with power. This power is especially accentuated in contexts like Africa where capital is scarce, where different worldviews collide and where historical patterns of injustice continue to abound.

So, when we as investors enter into a new context or relationship with capital behind us, it inevitably results in a power gap where our views and opinions carry disproportional weight, not because of their merit, but simply because it holds the key to capital.     

It quickly seduces us into believing we have all the answers, into taking more than we should in negotiations and into loading unrealistic burdens on the organisations we invest in.   

Paul gives us the perfect antidote to this when he instructs us to instead ‘in humility value others above ourselves’. It essentially requires us to let go of our pride and to take a positive, counter-cultural, step in the opposite spirit and to love our neighbour. 

So how do we, as investors with capital, knowledge and power engage in humility to value others above ourselves?

At Mergon we start by taking the time to really get to know the leaders we engage with as individuals with their own unique stories, hopes, and dreams. We also seek to grow in our understanding of their culture, the context they operate in and the unique challenges they face.   

We design our investment and funding approaches to build alignment, to extend trust and to truly serve the organisational needs and purposes.     

Lastly, we resist using power as leverage to get our way or to exploit a situation. Rather, we use whatever power or influence we have to open doors and create opportunities for growth.

As we surrender power, we re-frame the partnership playing field. We extend respect and dignity; we restore broken mindsets and we unlock a different kind of redemptive power that has the inherent potential to reshape nations. 

Lastly, we’re in it together.

At Mergon we’re relationally all-in when it comes to partnerships. We love to roll up our sleeves and come alongside our partners to support them on their journey. 

That doesn’t mean we shy away from robust conversations. We know that, over the course of this journey, there will be some moments when the stakes are high and our interests may be somewhat misaligned. Our challenge is to navigate even these potentially difficult moments in a way that continues to look out for the interests of one another.

Let me share a story in closing to illustrate how we’ve approached one such moment.  

A few years ago we sat down with the CEO of one of our investee businesses to explain that, in our view, the business would perform better in the long term in the hands of another investor. It was a painful moment for both of us since it marked the end of a long and challenging business journey that we had embarked on together. 

As we started exploring what an exit might look like, we committed to working together as relational partners on this journey. Together we identified the attributes that would make for a suitable investor. We agreed not to sell the business to a corporate, which would simply absorb it into a bigger group, instead opting to search for an investor who would keep the business, its people and the special culture it had built intact. 

When we eventually identified a suitable potential investor, we created space for the CEO and the investor to build a relationship, and only when we were comfortable that the relationship could work did we proceed to negotiate the exit. During the negotiation process, we took great care to consider the interests of the leadership team, the new investor and that of Mergon. It necessitated a level of sacrifice from all parties in order to reach a place of unity and agreement.

When all was said and done, the exit had delivered an acceptable return on investment. Could we have earned a better return if we had taken a harder line? Perhaps. But we walked away with so much more – our relationship with the CEO remained intact; we had built a valuable new relationship with the incoming investor; and the business was truly liberated to flourish. 

For us this was effectively a multiplication moment, enabling us to redeploy the returned capital in support of the next venture with whom we could journey as partners for redemptive impact.   

Building redemptive capital partnerships is a journey rather than a destination. It requires humility, intentionality, sacrifice and service. We will no doubt fail along the way, but then we learn and grow through it.

The journey holds its own reward. As we mould each other into greater Christ-likeness, we build relationships that could last into eternity and we model a different way of doing business, that brings glory to God and has the power to change hearts and minds.

This article is an overview of Pieter Faure’s (Mergon CEO) talk at the FDI 2022 Conference. Watch the video here.

Stewarding our lives from the inside out

In Luke 12, Jesus draws from the parable of a rich man who stored up treasures on earth at the expense of heavenly wealth. Drawing from the warnings and wisdom expressed through this parable, Mergon CEO Pieter Faure shares some of the thinking around biblical stewardship that has shaped our 4-decade journey at Mergon. In this CEF white paper, he unpacks some of the flawed thought patterns that we as stewards could just as easily fall into, and how can we embrace a different kind of stewardship.

In Luke 12 v 16–21, Jesus tells the well-known story of a successful farmer and businessman who in a particular year had been blessed with an abundant harvest. In fact, the blessing was so great that he asked with angst, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops?’

His solution was to tear down his existing barns where he stored his wealth and build a bigger one. Having done this, he sat back, content, with a store of wealth to last a lifetime and the prospect of living the good life. 

Yet despite his meticulous planning, he miscalculated in one respect; that very night his life would be demanded from him, and all he had built up for himself would go to someone else or to ruin. 

Jesus closes with a warning to all of us: ‘This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.’

Stewarding our barn today

At Mergon our mission is to steward all the resources entrusted to us for Kingdom impact, that is to see lives transformed through the power of the gospel and culture redeemed through the way we manage and multiply God’s resources. In a way one could say that we are stewarding a ‘modern day barn’. 

Outwardly this makes us very different to the farmer in Jesus’ story who is stewarding the barn and its resources purely for selfish gain. Yet this higher purpose doesn’t vaccinate us against unintentionally succumbing to the same flawed thinking that led to the farmer’s demise.

What are some of the flawed thought patterns in this parable that we as stewards could just as easily fall into, and how can we embrace a different kind of stewardship? Here are some of the thoughts that have been shaping our journey at Mergon.

We are sons before stewards

The farmer in Jesus’ parable seems to have found his identity in his success, the size of ‘his’ barn, and his self-sufficiency—it defined and changed him. As stewards of capital we need to pause and ask ourselves from time to time, ‘Wherein do we find our identity; what ultimately defines us?’  

I, like many of you, may be quick to contest that my identity is secure in Christ.  Yet the reality is that after many years as CEO of Mergon my identity could so easily be defined by ‘what I do’ or by Mergon’s success rather than ‘Whom I belong to’. 

I need to remind myself daily that I am a son before I am a steward.  Like the farmer in the parable, my life may be demanded from us this very night. Might it be that, when I come face-to-face with God, the first thing He says to me is, ‘Welcome home, My beloved child,’ before He says, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

The barn is not our source

The farmer in our story clearly viewed the barn as his source of security and provision. He lost sight of the fact that no matter how great the barn is, all its contents are temporal and the result of God’s gracious and faithful provision.  

During Covid, Mergon’s cashflow came under severe pressure. At one point it seemed that we would be unable to meet our funding commitments to our various ministries partners. In this difficult time I wrestled with questions like ‘Who will provide for our partners if Mergon can’t?’ and ‘What does this say about our stewardship?’  It was a heavy burden to carry. 

Eventually God, in His graciousness, brought me to a place of true surrender. This came when I realised we needed to write a letter to the ministry partners who received Mergon funding. In it, we transparently explained that henceforth our funding commitment would be a month-by-month faith journey—whatever God provided, we would distribute.

It was one of the hardest letters I’ve ever had to write; it felt like we had failed in our stewardship. Yet once it was sent, a huge burden lifted. It was as though, by declaring God to be our true Provider, our faith in Him and reliance on Him had set us free. 

The response from our ministry partners was overwhelming. They deeply appreciated our vulnerability, they prayed for us, and some even offered to forfeit their financial benefit to other ministries who might be in greater need. It was a beautiful moment of solidarity, where funder and beneficiaries stood in unity as true partners in the gospel, together trusting God to provide so that we could each play our part in advancing His Kingdom.

God was faithful to provide throughout this challenging period and by grace, Mergon managed to fulfill all its financial commitments.   

We need to discern the season

The farmer in the parable had a real problem—his barn was overflowing. His solution was to build a bigger barn. Yet, he was not condemned for building a barn or for building a bigger barn—but rather for not being rich toward God.

How different the outcome might have been if he had paused and asked, ‘God, this is your harvest and your barn; what will you have me do with this? How do I use this to be rich to you?’ One can only wonder what creative suggestions God may have had for him. 

Ecclesiastes says “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens . . . a time to tear down and a time to build.” 

As stewards of Kingdom capital, we need to pause from time to time to discern the season we’re in—is it a season to build or to tear down, a season to invest or a season to give?  It will be different for each of us, depending on where we are on our journeys and what God has called us to.  But if we truly believe God owns it all we can submit all to his plans and not just a portion of our proceeds.

In reflecting on our Mergon journey, there have been two distinct past seasons with a new, third season beckoning.   

Season one was about building the barn. Mergon’s journey started in 1980 with a desperate commitment from our founder, Francois van Niekerk, to give 30% of his near bankrupt business to serve God’s Kingdom, if He would somehow give a breakthrough. The breakthrough came and in the years that followed the business prospered from those humble beginnings. Francois’ heart was for Mergon to impact the Kingdom but he knew it was a time to re-invest in order to build up a storehouse of capital that might be released more fully at the appropriate time in the future. 

In 2008, after 28 years of building, Francois and the trustees sensed that the season had changed.

In Mergon’s second season we threw open the barn doors. Francois handed over operational leadership to a newly established team tasked with stewarding Mergon’s resources. The original 30% of assets committed to Mergon was increased to 70%. We invested in numerous early-stage businesses, establishing an active presence in the South African business community – its impact through funds distributed spread across Africa and the Middle East. We’ve also developed innovative collaborative initiatives to bring about social change in South Africa. 

The leadership team and board once again sense that Mergon is on the brink of a season change. We are still discerning what this might look like but it is challenging us to rethink some of our core beliefs around our stewardship call, such as “stewardship control vs. stewardship released,” “building stewardship capacity vs. enabling a stewardship community,” and “stewarding resources for return vs. sowing resources for multiplication.”

Whatever it may be, the most important thing is that our posture is one of open hands and prayerful hearts toward God, to wait on Him to show us what He has in mind for Mergon’s next season. As stewards we need to release our plans for the Mergon-barn into his hands to fulfill his purposes through it.  

In Conclusion   

In conclusion, courageous stewardship is an inside-out journey. It starts with us being secure in understanding our identity as children of God, loved and accepted, independent of our stewardship calling. It invites us to lay down our gifts and talents at the foot of the cross to fully rely on Him—the true Owner, the abundant Source of provision, and the Sustainer of the work. Lastly, it requires us to submit our plans and models to Him, seeking Him and waiting to hear His heart for the season we are in and the plans He has through which we are to accomplish His work. 

From that place of being fully surrendered, we can walk with a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. We can rejoice in the impact and success we see, without being overwhelmed by challenges and failures we go through. We can hold lightly to models, strategies, and plans yet bring to bear all our creative, daring, faith-filled energy to fulfill our stewardship calling and shine the light of His Kingdom into the places He has called us to be.