Pieter began his professional career at PwC, and in 2005 became the Financial Director of Infotech. In 2008 Pieter took over the management of Francois van Niekerk’s investment interests, as well as those of the foundation which had started in 1980, and formed the Mergon Group. Since then, Pieter and the Mergon team have actively partnered with a number of like-minded entrepreneurs to build businesses that achieve above-market success.
Whether you’re leading an organisation, a team, or a family – transitions are a part of life. Change is inevitable, and is confirmation of healthy growth towards maturity, but a season of transition in an organisation can also be unnerving in many ways. There’s a sense of deep vulnerability and insecurity that settles in when our routines and relationships feel like a shuffled deck.
Over the past 13 years we have navigated three major transitions in Mergon – each unlocking the next critical step of our journey. Although not everything was done perfectly, we have managed to achieve exceptional outcomes with relatively minimal turbulence. Each transition unlocked a new season for Mergon to extend its influence and capacity for Kingdom impact.
Here is a look at each transition along Mergon’s journey, and what I learned particularly from our founder Francois van Niekerk, about leading people through times of transition.
2008: A change in leadership
In 2008, the Mergon Foundation was positioned as the majority shareholder in a highly successful business, with substantial investments under management. At the time of Francois’ stepping down as CEO, however, Mergon’s core purpose needed careful re-evaluation. Was this growing balance sheet meant to be handed over to a reliable asset manager for defensive wealth management, or was Mergon meant to be an entrepreneurial investment company that could pioneer a path of purpose-driven business? The Board agreed that the calling to entrepreneurship was not only linked to Francois, but that it was a multi-generational calling. So I was appointed as Mergon’s new CEO, and given the mandate to establish an entrepreneurial investment team who could lead Mergon into its next season.
Looking back, here is what I learned from that time of transition:
Keep telling the story
Before you look forward, you need to look back, says the author of Managing Transitions, William Bridges. He argues that any effective transition must embrace the old before it takes on the new. In order to step confidently into the future you have to bring those authentic and honouring elements of the past with you. As a leader, you, in essence, must be the organisation’s most committed storyteller.
During the months leading up to the handover, Francois would spend his lunch hour with me to tell the story of ‘the journey so far’. I would fire all kinds of questions his way to understand his approach, his heart and his vision. He left no stone of the 30-year story unturned, no anecdote untold. Over time, I began to intuitively perceive the way he thinks, how he responds to difficult situations, honours a moment, and stewards God’s resources.
By telling me the stories, Francois was effectively transferring the culture and mindset that was so critical to Mergon’s mission and methodology. By the time I was asked to lead, I had a growing confidence that I had been assimilated into the story, aligned to the vision entrusted to me and able to move it forward.
Get good people around you and create space for them to flourish
Give your new leader the space to do big and gutsy things, but create a safety net to manage the risks. Francois gave us plenty of space to dream big and to execute our plans, even though we were fairly inexperienced in those early days – but he also kept his finger on the organisational pulse as Chairman of the Board of Governance. I had regular meetings with Francois and we established a close working relationship with the Board to ensure alignment as we went along. This provided both a wisdom covering and spiritual covering.
They also acted as advisors and impartial intermediaries in moments of conflict. In the rare moments where Francois and I did not agree on key matters, the Board was able to manage those disagreements and help navigate our conversation to find a common ground. Their insight and counsel was an invaluable resource during this time – one that I would argue every leader needs, especially during a time of transition.
2015: From Pretoria to Stellenbosch
By 2015, Mergon was growing in impact and reach, with diversified investments to fund the Foundation and a new Nation Builder initiative. We were still primarily an investment-led organisation at this stage, with Francois as the primary public face of the organisation.
In April of that year we sensed that after 35 years in Pretoria, God was leading us to consider a move to Stellenbosch. By July we had spoken about it publicly, and by December we were selecting desk chairs for our new Plein Street offices. In many ways, it was a ‘suddenly of God’ that required uncharted faith and courage to step out and stretch our reach into unfamiliar soil. In retrospect, however, it was a long time coming, strategically appointed by God to unlock the next season of catalytic growth and impact.
Looking back, here is what I learned from that particular time of transition:
Include your people in the decision-making process
One of the most difficult things about leading, is learning when to relinquish your rights to the final say. It is so tempting to push an agenda, especially when you believe you are right. But if your agenda succeeds at the expense of your people, your agenda is ultimately a failure anyway. Good leaders know how to make big decisions in team.
In our case, it was no small thing to imagine 17 families pulling up and replanting their Pretorian roots in Stellenbosch soil. Logistically it would have been easier to ring-fence the conversation. But to exclude the team from co-owning this conviction would never have produced the kind of grit and gutsy faith needed for each individual to make the journey. This decision had to be a collaborative one. Inviting the team into the decision-making process ended up unlocking further clarity and conviction. My advice to leaders is, take the team into your confidence – you will build better when the onus is not all on you.
Be clear and act decisively
It’s important to discern the pace of your transition. Sometimes you need to move slow and be patient, other times may leave you catching your breath. Either way, you need to be confident in your decisions, as uncertainty can be a death knell to any organisation.
In our case, we needed to instil confidence in our team by spearheading quick, decisive action. News of a 1,400 km relocation can hit the bush telegraph at a thunderous rate, leaving staff to wonder how they fit into this picture. Orchestrating a move within six months left little room for ‘in limbo’ living, and helped propel the team into the next season with bolstered faith and conviction.
You can never over-invest in prayer. Take more time than you think you need, to seek God’s counsel for direction. Marinade your people in prayer, so that when the ‘suddenlies’ arise, you are well positioned to move.
Remember, navigating organisational change is all about the people
Leading through transitions is a people-focussed process. You simply cannot put your organisational hat on and compartmentalise the people from the processes at work – life is unfortunately more messy and complex than that. Your staff is bound by strong affiliations and working relationships, and perceptions of how they fit into the organisational ecosystem. In this instance we were experiencing a significant geographical transition, together with transitions in the leadership structure at the time.
Personally I underestimated the emotional investment required to support the team in navigating this season change. As 17 families were each managing the challenges of relocation in one way or another, people experienced great uncertainty, change fatigue set in and pockets of conflict were arising within the team. What I originally thought to be a geographical move, was in fact a deeply personal journey for each team member and their family.
I realised I needed to walk closely with my colleagues, but that I also needed outside help to guide and support us through these interpersonal and logistical challenges. I had to learn how to walk with people, and prioritise others’ emotional well-being alongside the organisation’s strategic growth. It was a profound lesson for me in the importance of creating safe, empathetic spaces during tumultuous times of transition.
2019: From founder to flag-bearer
By 2019, Mergon had established itself as an organisation with a considerable brand identity and a growing footprint in the social investment space. Francois had given us executive authority years before, but he was still in many ways the flag-bearer and voice of the Mergon story – our chief evangelist.
On the first working day of the new year Francois called me and said that the time had come to take a further step back. He felt that it was time for a new era, for him to step down as Chairman of Mergon, to vacate his office and to truly step into the background.
Francois was essentially transferring the flag-bearer mantle – not just to me, but to each one of us within the growing Mergon team. This was a watershed moment for the organisation, which catalysed explosive impact and a growing sense of custodianship among the team. The work of one man has effectively multiplied to the many, thanks to his humility and ability to discern the times.
Build beyond your generation
It takes courage to relinquish your control or ability to exert influence, as Francois did. But in doing so, you can generate a sort of impetus for more people to own the vision and move the mission forward with authenticity and aligned purpose. Francois had opened a gap for us to fill, and suddenly the conversations in our office were changing. It was as if the concern he had spent on us all these years, had now been transferred to us, and we began to carry the same burden for those people in our generational wake.
When leaders build (prayerfully) with the next generation in mind, they tend to risk a bit more with people. There is a synergetic sense of urgency and peace that drives a generationally-minded leader–- a healthy restlessness to act, balanced by the knowledge that God has sovereignly appointed our seasons and stories. Thankfully Francois risked with me – a young man of 32 years and zero experience in organisational leadership. Had he decided to put the transition on hold until I was ‘ready’ or until he found the perfectly qualified individual we might well have missed out on this crucial time to build with the current generation. By recognising the need to step back in this particular season, Francois enabled others to step up and into their God-given callings.
Find your energy in the challenge
Today Mergon is an ever-growing ecosystem of ideators and impassioned people, working to create redemptive spaces for the Kingdom to intersect society and transform lives for good. There are now teams within teams, and differing opinions on mandates and core messaging. There are strong personalities with big dreams and, often, extraordinary opportunities to resource those dreams. Sometimes it’s enough to stop and ask ourselves, why did we do this to ourselves?
The fact is, however, as leaders we need to find our energy in these challenges. A more conservative approach would have arguably simplified our mission – but we would have missed so much of the challenge, growth and the blessing that God had in store for us. When complexity arises, our job is to step up and allow these challenges to unleash great potential through our leadership and teams. A multi-generational journey in business does not accidentally unfold – it is forged intentionally, through the complexity.
I have learned so much over this 13-year journey with Mergon. Each season has unlocked new thoughts and applications, along with new levels of audacious expectations for God to do impossible things. I am grateful for every part of it, the wrestles along with the rewards, which have informed my leadership and grown my character over the years. What a privilege to write this story with Him, and to see this great work unfold.