Partnering for success and significance

In this episode of Our Mergon Journey podcast, Mergon CEO Pieter Faure, COO Gauché Radley, and director Almero Strauss delve into the details of our investment approach by taking us through the hallways of Mergon’s history to the pivotal year of 2008, when founder Francois van Niekerk handed over the leadership reigns to Pieter Faure. Inspired to nurture their entrepreneurial drive, the young team initiated the groundwork for partnerships and measurable impact through early-stage investments in South Africa. Here is an overview of this insightful conversation.

A fork in the road: choosing the entrepreneurial path

In 2008 the team found themselves at a critical T-junction: either to adopt a capital preservation approach, conservatively growing the portfolio over time, or to embrace a more entrepreneurial path and start reinvesting in younger, earlier stage businesses. They opted for the latter – a choice that required new faith and fresh eyes for opportunity. ‘Until that point, our investment focus was primarily on South African property,’ said Almero. ‘Although that remained an important part of the portfolio, we wanted to diversify and explore new investment opportunities beyond South Africa.’

At the same time, he explained, they also wanted to increase their giving through the Mergon Foundation. ‘After 28 years with the primary focus on growth in asset value,’ Almero continued, ‘the time had now come to drive growth in distributions. So, we embarked on a journey of aggressively growing the distributions to partners of the Mergon Foundation and added many new partners over the next few years.’

Navigating uncharted waters: a unique investment approach

In the coming years, the portfolio further diversified and grew – investments began to mature, along with an increase in distributions to the Foundation. However, as Gauché explained, this entrepreneurial approach was not without its challenges.

‘Typically, you have two investment scenarios,’ he said. ‘Either you have a high-growth portfolio with a lower yield, and the focus is on plowing all the returns or dividends back into the portfolio to ensure maximum growth. Alternatively, you have a lower-growth portfolio where the focus is on the yield, almost like an endowment fund.’

‘We decided to go for a high-growth, high-yield mandate,’ he added, ‘a decision which is ‘not really normal’ in the investment world.’

‘This strategy was incredibly dynamic and exciting,’ Gauché said, ‘but it did present some complexity when it came to cashflow.’ In order to generate liquidity and effectively manage the portfolio, he explained, they needed to depend on a complex blend of funding sources. This involved receiving dividends from some of the more mature or listed investments, making strategic reallocations within the portfolio, and using gearing to ensure gradual and steady results over time. It was a strategy that proved to be successful, allowing Mergon to significantly increase its distributions to the Foundation for over 14 years.

Adapting with purpose: embracing flexibility in strategy

In recent years, Almero went on to say, Mergon has adopted a more balanced approach by blending private business investments and more liquid assets. This approach has not only enabled the team to stay dedicated to investing in private businesses but also has ensured a careful handling of liquidity.

Pieter reflected on this strategic shift, acknowledging it as one of several adaptations that Mergon has made over the years. ‘I believe it’s crucial, as we steward capital, not to be overly attached to a fixed model or a specific way of thinking about the right or best approach,’ said Pieter. ‘Instead, we must create space for God to speak into our strategy and our hearts. Looking back at previous seasons, different models have been called for. We’ve never adhered rigidly to our thinking; we’ve always maintained flexibility. Our approach has consistently been open-handed and open-hearted, allowing us to hear what God is saying. The result of which, we’ve had the incredible privilege to be actively engaged on the ground, journeying alongside entrepreneurs in building businesses over the past 14 years.’

Nurturing Long-Term Partnerships

Because partnership is a core part of our approach, it has significantly shaped how we think about investments. This has led to an investment mindset and strategy that differs from the usual approaches often associated with venture capital. Gauché elaborated, ‘Unlike a private equity fund that engages in short-term buy-ins and exits within a five-year span, we take on a more long-term outlook. This aligns our values with building value alongside entrepreneurs, which requires a bit more patience. We ensure that we’re making the right decisions for the business, avoiding a rush to maximise value within a five-year window.’

He added, ‘But journeying with entrepreneurs entails more than just business – in the end, it’s about people.’ Pieter, Gauché, and Almero went on to share their views on what it means to stand by entrepreneurs, leveling power imbalances through partnerships and journeying through all of life’s challenges and victories. To learn more about our relational approach and listen to the full podcast, click 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’. 

Finishing strong: the story of a win win exit

Business man in a corporate office smiling

At Mergon, we believe that partnerships are not just about achieving short-term gain, but about building long-lasting relationships that create value for everyone involved. Mergon COO Gauché Radley spoke to this idea in a recent interview, highlighting some of the key principles underpinning our partnership approach. He shares the story of 4PL, a former Mergon investee company, and how we worked closely with them to divest our investment in a way that ensured their continued growth and success.

It’s a story that underscores our commitment to building partnerships that go beyond the bottom line and create long-lasting value. Here is an overview of this discussion.

‘We have seen the transformative power of partnerships where there is trust and mutual respect, and everybody benefits in the end,’ said Gauché. ‘Unfortunately, we have also seen another reality, where motives and models are flawed, and profit and impact metrics are prioritised above all else. This leads to power imbalances and the exploitation of relationships for personal gain, ending in a situation where the ‘winner takes all’.’

‘We want to partner in a different way,’ said Gauché. ‘To show up in a way that reflects God’s heart and aim to build something meaningful and long-lasting.’

A case in point

We often say at Mergon that we ‘stand alongside, not above’ our investment partners. But what does this practically look like in the way we engage with our investment partners? Gauché proceeded to illustrate his point by sharing the story of 4PL.

‘In 2020 we felt it was time to start making arrangements to sell our stake in the business. As in this case, even when the relationship with the CEO is strong, this is still a difficult conversation to have. It’s deeply personal, and it can create uncertainty. People become worried, ‘how are we going to look after ourselves once Mergon pulls out? Will the company just fold when the funding dries up?’

A seat at the table

Knowing that managing uncertainty is crucial in these situations, the team took the proactive step of involving the CEO in the discussion right from the start. ‘He was concerned about being swallowed up by a large trading company and losing his independence,’ said Gauché. ‘We assured him that we were committed to look together for a better parent for 4PL. That we wouldn’t force anyone on him but work with him and find someone whom he was happy with. Someone who was well positioned in the industry, who shared our mission and values, and could put more capital into the business. And that’s what we did.’

Having recognised the value of the CEO’s expertise and leadership, the team wanted to empower him in having a voice in decision making. Gauché explained, ‘We knew that, for the CEO to have legitimate influence and a real say around the table, he would have to have a significant stake in the business. We made shares available to him, which enabled him to become a co-entrepreneur in the business. Now he was in a good position – acting not only as the CEO but as a shareholder in the business and part of the management team.’

A win-win exit

Eventually the right investor came along. A season set aside for the CEO and investor to get to know one another, and only once they were confident that the relationship could work, did we proceed to the next stage of the exit process. ‘We were intentional during the negotiation process about taking every stakeholder’s interest into account’, said Gauché. ‘And in the end, it all went really well. We were able to exit the business in a way that left everybody around the table still making money and still building on influence and relationship.’

Today the business is thriving, with a net worth that has doubled in value since having sold our stake. The CEO is still running the company, with much relational influence. ‘There’s a lot of trust in the room,’ added Gauché. ‘And it’s a good feeling because we really added value to the company.’

‘In a world where wealth determines power and competition is fierce, we at Mergon want to approach our capital partnerships in a different spirit of humility, said Gauché. ‘True partnership has us seeking to learn, to listen and ask questions, and trying to understand the needs and unspoken expectations of everyone involved. When we see ourselves as stewards of God’s capital, we understand that these are God’s resources, not ours. We don’t need to do everything in our power to maximise the company’s bottom line. We can focus on creating environments where everyone flourishes and there’s mutual trust and respect in the room. This not only lays the groundwork for good business – it ultimately honours God.’

To learn more about Mergon’s investment approach and current portfolio, see here.

Leading from the heart

In this interview summary with Ziwani’s Sibs Sibanda, Mergon COO Gauché Radley gives us a fresh perspective on what it means to ‘love your neighbour’ in business today. In a fast paced world of competition where winner takes all, he shares how ‘laying down power’ and ‘moving at the speed of trust’ will always get you further in the long run.

Setting the bar high

Since the beginning, God has invited us to co-labour with Him in the renewal of ‘all things’, beginning with our relationship with him, overflowing to our relationships with others and ultimately extending to the elements of culture and society at large. Central to this mission is God’s love.

Gauché reflected on this idea of loving people in the context of business: ‘In Psalm 24 the writer talks about journeying with clean hands and a pure heart, with no lies and no idols,’ he says. ‘That’s a pretty high standard. It’s one thing not to lie in business – but to negotiate with a ‘pure heart’? To appoint and sever employment relationships with a ‘pure heart’?! That’s a completely different way of dealing with people. It’s where you’re looking out for yourself as well as for the guy on the other side of the table.’

Gauché made this idea practical, sharing a recent example during Covid whereby the Mergon investment team was in the process of raising significant capital for the acquisition of a business in Denmark. Nearing the completion of the deal, with only a handful of legalities left to finalise, the team was confronted with a sobering reality: though profitability projections looked good in the immediate and long term, they would have to ride out a year of inevitable profit loss. ‘We decided to share this information with the investors,’ said Gauché. ‘They ended up pulling out. It was horrible.’ He added: ‘But fast forward a couple of years, and we were able to buy that same company in Denmark. It wasn’t simple – there was a lot of prayer involved and a lot of stressing, submitting and surrendering. What we could say though, is that throughout the process we kept a pure heart and clean hands – and that was worth it.’

Coming to the table as equals

Business can be a powerful vehicle through which we live out God’s commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves, as expressed in Matthew 22. For this to happen, there needs to be a level playing field where both parties can come as equals to the table. Gauché emphasised that part of our role as capital investors is to acknowledge the power that comes with money – and then intentionally lay that power down in the spirit of true partnership.

‘Trust creates speed in our business – and, in the end, it creates financial success too,’ said Gauché.  ‘For us the relational aspect – the partnership – is a fundamental part of our business philosophy, both on the investment side and on the giving side. When you have money, you can almost do anything you want. It’s undiluted, impersonal power – and the way you use that power really defines what your views are on partnership and God’s love in this world.’

Gauché noted that, over the past decade serving as King Price chairman, decisions have always been made in team, with room for robust discussion and disagreement. ‘Even though we have the majority seats on the board to get through what we want, we don’t abuse that power. We always invite discussion and argue our position with respect for one another’s views. We do not use money as a source of power to get what we want.’

Gauché noted that when partnerships are rooted in love, priorities shift away from the bottom line agenda and towards a more holistic, Kingdom perspective. This in turn produces a kind of counter cultural behaviour in the business world. As an illustration, Gauché shared a recent experience with members of the King Price executive board: ‘We were discussing the impact of COVID, the recent storms and riots – all the factors that have made for a rough ride for insurers in the last couple of years. You would think that the board would have first wanted to know more around profitability, share price and our financing arrangement. But their response was, ‘how can we serve the management team in this time’? We decided that in the next month we’ll get on a plane and go pray with the team. We want to create a circle around them and dedicate them to God, asking for God’s wisdom and help. These are the things that really makes a difference in people’s lives and change the way people think about business, said Gauché. 

Success is in surrendering

On the back of this example, Sibs asked how God has challenged Gauché’s notion of ‘success’ in business. ‘Given that God is love,’ he said, ‘how does that truth impact the way you personally define success and how you as a business regard what success is?

Gauché noted that it’s important for us as Christians to strive for excellence in all we do, especially when it comes to excellence in business. ‘If you’re a failed businessman, people won’t necessarily want to hear your opinion. So monetary success is part of our mandate and gives us a voice to speak into the world. With that said, Gauché continued, ‘Money does not define whether you’re successful or not.’ No matter how much you have of it, he reminded us through the famous words of John Rockefeller, you’ll always want ‘just a little bit more’.

Success is rather rooted in relation to our dependence on God. He reflected on a few vulnerable moments at Mergon when liquidity was at risk and there was very little to do other than to get on one’s knees and surrender: ‘In those moments we’d say to the Lord, You built this company – Mergon is yours, so you do what you want with it. It’s these points of true surrender that have brought forth much growth, where God has put more of his Kingdom into our hearts.’

Gauché ended with an encouragement for business leaders to strive for God’s definition of success. ‘Trust God to get out and walk on the water with Jesus. It requires a lot of faith and a lot of trust; you’ll have to keep surrendering. But in the end, I really believe it will be worth it.’

This article is a summary overview of the podcast entitled ‘Balancing Love and Power’, an episode of Ziwani’s latest podcast series, Monday Christian. To listen to the full podcast, visit here.

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.