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Investment in courage at Atterbury blooms, 25 years on

Francois Van Niekerk – Founder & Chairman Mergon Group

After three centuries of Apartheid rule, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black and nationally elected president on 10 May 1994. ”

Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another,”
said Mandela upon his inauguration.

Twenty-five years ago, South Africans were facing unchartered territories on a social, political and economic level. Democracy was born. But it was a young concept, and some had tremendous hope, others were fearful of the unknown. At the time, for one group of people it has taken courage to work towards a new national order, for another group to submit the leadership they fought to keep, and for another to graciously welcome and accept the change that followed.

Leaders calculate courage
In business deal- and decision-making, we often navigate the same fears. Twenty-five years ago, I took a calculated chance, but a chance nonetheless, on a young junior article clerk, Louis van der Watt. Louis expressed a strong interest in property, and I had a good feeling about him, so I offered him a partnership deal.

This turned out to be the embodiment of a courageous investment turned successful venture that not only grew from strength to strength but went on to have touched, improved and enhanced the lives of so many people. Not only is Atterbury successfully bringing people together in safe and beautiful surroundings, but we think of the more than 650 Atterbury Trust bursary students, and the impact that has been made in the lives of Atterbury’s employees and their extended families. Part of the company’s legacy is that Atterbury’s developments make an impact on people’s quality of life.

I am deeply grateful for the material success of Atterbury. But most rewarding to me is to have seen how Louis has exponentially enhanced the founding principles and standards. How he eventually crafted a business with a full house of all the qualities required for enduring greatness. Louis believes strongly in business, assuming a leadership role, voicing opinions and creating opportunities.

Leadership can be a lonely place, especially within the cut-throat property industry. Louis quickly established himself as a leading figure in the South African property industry. He is widely respected, and his style is probably best described by a quote from Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve: “I have found no greater satisfaction than achieving success through honest dealing and strict adherence to the view that for you to gain, those you deal with should gain as well.”

I make no secret that my forty years of exposure to picking and cultivating business partners, Atterbury Group’s CEO proves a distinct career highlight for me because of his uncompromising values and his unassailable credibility quotient. Louis is Atterbury. He is the acknowledged architect, rainmaker and driving force responsible for moulding Atterbury into a premium international property group.

Marrying profit with people
Today, looking back over a quarter of a century of investment in the property sector, we are able to recognise that continued courage has often catapulted investment decisions into positive societal impact.

Yes, the landscape is very different today. We had to adapt politically and geographically in business. However, the real challenges facing the business sector are mostly to do with political undercurrents of bad governance.

The country’s potential can be unlocked, but only through a radical new approach to leadership and a new form of constructive, cooperative governance. Courage, creative thinking and the can-do SA attitude is needed to support our government. I’m grateful to see the mounting realisation in corporate circles realising that communal goodwill and maximising profit are anything but mutually exclusive.

Richard Branson redefines success as “doing good at a profit”. The growing belief is that for capitalism to prolong its shelf life, we need to explore the new concept Bill Gates calls “Social Capitalism”. The business game has changed. Now, to succeed, you need to make a profit while you do good; and the latter way beyond the odd charity handout. I believe business should shift its values from a singular profit focus to caring for people, communities and the planet in order to become true catalysts for change on a social, political and economic level.

But beyond this, my walk with God in business reinforced my own belief in the need for SA business and our civil society to start focusing on sharing and forgiveness. The Gini coefficient and “hate index” are both at breaking point.

Under construction
Atterbury’s sustained high-road performance, and Mergon’s decreasing shareholding presented the Mergon Group with several cash-realisation opportunities. It certainly was the major source of capital that enabled Mergon’s widespread diversification programme. In context, it makes Louis and the entire Atterbury family significant contributors to the Mergon quest for serving the expansion of the Kingdom through business.

Despite Louis being the almost overwhelming dominant force, he also meticulously developed and nurtured a substantial number of proteges. In a new era where Louis van der Watt is no longer operational head in South Africa, I have no doubt that the Atterbury reputation for unabated progress will be upheld, given the acknowledged quality of the company’s board, senior management and staff.

In time this will emerge as a significant part of his legacy.

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