On a life adventure with God

‘What was I possibly thinking? My business was basically bankrupt, and I had the audacity to offer God a 30% stake in it if He’d rescue it. Last I looked, that’s hardly a deal you can’t refuse,’ says Mergon founder Francois van Niekerk.

It was in this moment of desperation, under the canopy of a Jacaranda tree in September bloom, when everything changed. ‘The client had made it clear that there was no chance of doing business now, ‘annual budget was spent’, he said. But I had to try – else insolvency was imminent. I prayed and dedicated my company to God if He would rescue it. Before coffee was served, my client and I had struck an unexpected deal. The company was thrown a lifeline, and I knew I had to make good on my vow.’

And so began the most unusual faith venture, bringing Mergon and all its many facets to life over the next four decades. ‘We’ve had our share of challenges and mistakes made over the years – as well as our moments of joy and success,’ says Francois. ‘Of all the words I could choose to sum this story up, it would have to be ‘gratitude’. I’m just so grateful for this great life journey.’

In this second season of the Mergon Journey podcast, we get to know a bit more about the man behind the making of Mergon. Over four episodes, host and Mergon CEO, Pieter Faure, delves into some of the memories and pivotal moments that shaped his principles as a businessman, leader, and family man. From simple lessons in his father’s farm shop to navigating ‘power-hungry’ leadership in his early corporate career, we gain a glimpse into the values that inspire and embody Francois – both then and now. Now in his 80s, Francois is still as visionary as ever, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Pieter starts by taking us back to a Mergon board meeting a few years ago, when Francois resigned as Mergon’s chairman and officially handed over the last of his responsibilities. ‘It was such a beautiful moment, with everyone around the table sharing words of encouragement and experiences from their years working with you. I still remember quoting Psalm 1:3, which speaks about a tree being ‘planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in season’. In the same way, you’ve had your own distinct seasons of fruitfulness over the years at Mergon.’

What were those seasons exactly? Pieter suggests that the first season was ‘the founding years’, when Francois established himself as an entrepreneur in the 1980s. Then in the 90s, he became more of a ‘deal maker’, building and establishing successful businesses. In the 2000s, Francois took on more of a mentoring role in Mergon, investing in the people who came after him. And now in this current season of life, Pieter explains, Francois is enjoying the adventure of being what he’s coined, ‘an unlikely marketplace evangelist’.

‘Would you say that resonates with you?’ asks Pieter.

‘Especially the unlikely bit,’ laughs Francois. In fact, ‘unlikely’ is a pretty accurate way of describing the chances that he would end up doing most of the things he’s done – starting with the decision to walk away from a comfortable job, company car and perks included, as a ‘matter of principle’. He explains: ‘The CEO was replaced overnight by someone who had a much more autocratic and power-hungry leadership style. I had been recently promoted, but I soon realised I wouldn’t be able to work with him. It was his way or no way at all. I really had no choice but to resign.’

In sharing the news with his late wife, Miems, later that night, she didn’t skip a beat: ‘So what are you going to do now?’ she asked. And neither did he: ‘I have no idea’, he replied.

The startup years: principles in business

Of course, Francois did end up finding his footing that year, establishing Infotech – a tech startup with a unique market position importing and selling then ‘state of the art’ word processors from America. From the beginning, he built his company culture on the principles he holds dear. What were some of those principles? Pieter asks.

‘Firstly,’ says Francois, ‘it’s always about the customer. This is the number one business principle that my dad taught me in his little farm shop as a young boy. His clients were ordinary farm workers, salt of the earth people, but my father always treated them with the greatest respect.’

‘Secondly’, he says, ‘be open to learn more from other people who know more than you.’  Teachability and humility go a long way, he reminds us, and that ‘the best results are those achieved with other people.’

‘Lastly,’ says Francois, ‘my experience with my former boss helped me think around power and how to effectively lay it down as a leader. I think it’s been helpful to be power averse, instead of power obsessed like he was. This mindset has helped me over the years to avoid seeking power and instead step away from power positions. And that has always had a good outcome for me.’

The building years: principles in partnership

Fast forward to the 1990s, a period of profound political and social unrest in South Africa. With apartheid dismantling and a new democratic era emerging, uncertainty hung in the air, and nobody could predict which direction the future would take. Investor confidence was at an unprecedented low. It was during this time that Francois made yet another ‘unlikely’ decision – this time to invest in commercial property.

This investment was in fact a game-changer, Pieter notes, leading to the establishment of Atterbury Property, which grew to become ‘arguably the most preeminent commercial property developer in South Africa and a cornerstone in Mergon’s investment portfolio during the late 1990s and early 2000s’. What contributed to its growing success? Both Pieter and Francois believe it was in ‘getting the right people around the table’ –  like minded entrepreneurs who brought together ‘their talent, capital and resources to build Atterbury to what it is today’.

Partnership has always been at the heart of both Mergon and Francois’ approach. What makes for good partnership? Start by doing your homework, Francois recommends, but don’t underestimate the power of a ‘gut feel’. Look for synergy as well, he says: ‘In a business partnership, there is no point in having a partner who is exactly like you. What can you do that I can’t do? And what can I do that you can’t do?’ He stresses the importance of having ‘undaunted, open communication between partners’, where there’s a clear vision of where you’re going and a common set of values to get you there. Discipline is also key, and it involves ‘decisive action, including finishing the partnership in a good way if it doesn’t work out’. Above all, Francois says, good partnership starts with submitting all our decisions to God in prayer and letting Him lead.

The mentoring years: principles in handing over

2008 was another significant year for Mergon. Along with the board of trustees, Francois had established an in-house team in Mergon, led by Pieter as the new acting CEO, with a mandate to reinvest in new entrepreneurial ventures and significantly increase the distributions from Mergon.

Transitioning leadership is challenging at the best of times. As Pieter notes, ‘Very few businesses succeed from one generation to another. Transitions sadly often fail.’ Francois was aware of these challenges and felt a good ‘balance’ between guiding the team and giving them autonomy was the best approach. Reflecting on that era, Pieter says, ‘You gave us almost unprecedented operational freedom. We were allowed to make decisions, and risk on new things. Your focus was not on holding our hand operationally. But at the same time, you weren’t hands off either. You were still keenly interested and invested in our journey.’

There were many lunch breaks spent in Francois’ office, Pieter remembers, sharing hearts and Francois’ lunchbox. ‘You taught me what was most important to you,’ he shares. ‘Things like, what is trust? What is partnership? Stories that shaped your journey and went on to shape ours. I cherish those conversations in your office in Glenfield office park in Pretoria,’ Pieter reflects, highlighting how these interactions helped cultivate the values that continue to guide Mergon today.

Recent years: principles in significance

In the final episode, we explore Francois’ more recent years, and specifically how his focus has shifted from leading in business to using his influence and story to inspire others. Pieter and Francois fondly recall the journey that ultimate culminated in Francois penning his autobiography, Doing Business with Purpose:

What started as one speaking engagement soon blossomed into several invitations to share the Mergon story. ‘I remember it wasn’t always convenient, a man well in his seventies driving to some rather remote places at very early times of the morning,’ says Pieter. ‘But you were willing, if it meant others could be inspired by your testimony.’

‘I think my desire has always been to encourage people that God wants to change lives, and He wants to work through ordinary people to do it,’ Francois says. This message has resonated with countless men and women who have read the book, moved by Francois’ life testimony and inspired to use their lives to serve His kingdom. In fact, Doing Business with Purpose has been translated into Mandarin and is circulating in China, with plans for wider publication.

Francois is still going strong, building out a handful of philanthropic projects through his family trust, Carmi. He is also taking time to enjoy the fruit of his labour – travelling with his wife Louise and visiting family overseas. More than ever, his life continues to be fulfilling and…would he dare say, significant?

‘If significance is defined by serving God and serving others….and nothing else, then yes – I suppose I would say my life story carries significance.’

To hear more stories, warm anecdotes and insights from Francois’ life and career, listen to the full podcast series.

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.

Beauty in small beginnings

In this episode of Our Mergon Journey, Pieter Faure, Almero Strauss and Lauren Cloete-Henning share some of their learning experiences as a small new team. At the time, there simply was no blueprint available for operating in the diverse environments of entrepreneurial investment, philanthropy, and corporate social impact. Driven by their shared dedication to learning and improving, and to understanding God’s ways in business, the team found their way forward.

In the previous article, Pieter and the team discussed the transition from founder Francois van Niekerk to the next generation team, which sets the stage for the journey described here. Pieter and Lauren were integral members of a small team that was entrusted with a blank canvas, providing them with the opportunity to shape the path ahead.

Lauren fondly recalled her Mergon journey, which began during a church conference in France where she crossed paths with Pieter while serving as their translator. Mergon’s unique mandate of making a meaningful impact through business intrigued her and kickstarted conversations that resonated with Lauren’s passion for corporate social responsibility.

Reflecting on these early discussions, Pieter realised that there were questions and nuances to the dynamics of social impact that the team had not yet considered. ‘It wasn’t quite as simple as I thought it would be,’ he remarked. ‘We realised if we are going to be successful in having positive social impact, Mergon would need to be investing in the right people. People with a deep knowledge of the social development as well as the impact sector.’ For this reason, Lauren was invited to relocate to Pretoria and join the Mergon team.

Building upon Pieter’s reflections, Lauren shared what excited her about joining the team, and how her previous learnings could benefit Mergon’s vision for partnership and sustainable impact. ‘Having developed standards of applications and evaluations from my previous work in the UK,’ she explained,’ I just loved the idea that we could apply these practices and knowledge to the South African context. I saw that we needed to professionalise the work that we were doing and align ourselves with standards of excellence. This was important not only to us, but to the organisations, businesses, and philanthropists we worked with.’

Pioneering new paths amidst a global crisis

Lauren took to this task wholeheartedly, seeking to understand the South African social impact landscape and how Mergon could best serve the partners who operate within the sector. At the same time, the company had just come through a significant period of growth, and the team felt they were facing a crucial decision. At the time the portfolio consisted primarily of ownership in private property funds in South Africa. The question was: do we adopt a more conservative, capital preservation approach or do go the entrepreneurial route? They chose the more courageous road, opting for entrepreneurship…ironically just as the 2008 financial crisis hit our global shores.

Against this backdrop, the team made a bold decision to increase their giving during this challenging period. He explained, ‘We wanted to start funding organisations we were starting to build relationships with. But we were sitting with a balance sheet that was very illiquid. Although it was fast growing, the private property funds weren’t paying dividends, but were rather focused on capital growth.’

In light of more than two decades of portfolio growth, reaching impressive annual rates as high as thirty to forty percent, the team was now faced with the task of exploring innovative strategies to unlock cash flow. ‘Let’s be honest,’ Almero said, ‘it was a tough time. It was really difficult to be entrepreneurial in order to generate liquidity out of the portfolio for the giving, but also to reinvest in other smaller businesses.’

Cultivating courage through challenging times

Despite the very real challenges they faced during that time, Pieter noted that the atmosphere cultivated a great deal of courage and optimism. Thanks to Francois’ intentional approach to transitioning his leadership, he remained involved and present, providing mentorship and guidance. There was space to make mistakes and to learn from them, as the young team learned to stretch their faith and pursue ambitious ideas.

Pieter added to this perspective when sharing, ‘If I look back on those first years, I think God was more interested in our character than our success. If we had walked in and everything was flowing seamlessly, it probably wouldn’t have been good for us in the long run. As youngsters in the investment space, we had to learn how to wrestle through those challenges.’

‘We also needed to create a position of influence,’ he continued, ‘an influence that could only be established through solid relationships.’ To build trust and credibility with others, Pieter noted that they had to commit to staying humble and open to learn from their investment partners – an approach that he noted, ‘set the base not just for our investment approach, but for me personally’.

The significance of partnerships

There was a growing realisation amongst the team that Kingdom impact embodied much more than giving, but the way in which they engaged with their investment and ministry partners. Increasingly they were asking themselves, ‘How do we show up in spaces that reflects God’s heart and prioritises the interests of our partners whilst doing good business?’

Lauren elaborated on this idea, noting that the donor-beneficiary relationships was typically characterised by a ‘power imbalance’ that they desired to address and rectify through equal, trust-based partnerships. Often with the best of intentions, she explained, donors could take on a ‘saviour mentality’, resulting in the ministry becoming disempowered and overly dependent. ‘We wanted to change that dynamic,’ said Lauren. ‘Part of our journey was in spending time, seeking to understand both our ministry partners and not-for-profits’ realities. Knowing that they had so much to teach us, we wanted to hear their voices and understand their approaches. The key was to encourage both parties to see one another as partners on the journey – not just as ‘donors and recipients’.

This dynamic was no exception in the investment space, Almero said, acknowledging the influence that comes with capital and how it more often leads us to assume we’re the experts in the room. ‘We wanted to come with a different spirit – as ‘co-entrepreneurs’, learning alongside them on this journey.’ He explained how they were intentional about honouring leaders, coming humble and teachable to the table, and applying biblical perspectives to the way they engaged in these relationships.

In the remainder of this podcast, Pieter goes on to emphasise the importance of nurturing healthy relationships and teams as a fundamental aspect of stewardship. Through personal anecdotes and vivid memories shared by all three participants, they provide both practical and inspiring perspectives on the significance of investing in people.

To hear some of these stories, listen to the full podcast here.

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’.