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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.