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.