Entrepreneur Mac van der Merwe
Written by Ron Toft
The FIFA World Cup South Africa has brought more than just exciting competition to the country. Entrepreneurs like Mac van der Merwe have placed themselves to enjoy the action off the pitch, and long after the final whistle has blown.
Despite owning a portfolio of leisure-oriented business interests, wealthy South African entrepreneur Mac van der Merwe knows what it’s like to be dirt-poor.
For 63-year-old van der Merwe – one of three brothers – grew up in the steel-making and coal-mining industrial area of Vereeniging, Gauteng. “My father worked very hard, from seven in the morning until seven at night,” he says. “Our parents bent over backwards to give us everything they possibly could within their limited resources.
“Although we walked five or six miles to school every day, it was not the end of the world. In fact, we were a very happy family. “Growing up so poor, I resolved to break out – to forge my own destiny. I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted to try to make a difference and not have to live like my parents did.”
Van der Merwe trained as a mechanical engineer, initially working for a petroleum company. It wasn’t long, however, before he spotted a business opportunity, launching a car dealership with an old school friend. The dealership went from strength to strength over a ten-year period, expanding to seven branches.
His next venture was a listed engineering supplies business. Arguably, van der Merwe’s riskiest purchase was a run-down gold mine, which he turned around and sold for a substantial profit just two years later.
The money he made from the mine enabled van der Merwe to set up the Zorgvliet Portfolio in early 2001. “The idea was to establish a multi-faceted leisure business offering not necessarily the biggest vineyard, hotel or game reserve and such like, but the very best of their kind in South Africa in terms of location.”
The jewel in the crown is Zorgvliet Wine Estate (1) and (4). “The wine estate is the centre of our business, our brand. It is the one thing you cannot substitute. We could never take it away and build the business around something else. It is an asset that simply cannot be replaced.”
Van der Merwe says that although he is “passionate” about his various business interests, he doesn’t believe in sustaining lame ducks. “If something doesn’t make economic sense, I sell it.” One of the Zorgvliet property interests currently being re-evaluated is Ka’Ingo Private Game Reserve & Spa (3), comprising nine farms.
“We want to retain the conservation-oriented model we have developed, which saw Ka’Ingo’s boundary fences with a neighbouring game farm being taken down last year to create the Greater Mokolo Nature Reserve. But we now feel we can do that with a smaller landholding.”
“We are negotiating at present with various parties to get some of the black entrepreneurs into the game farming environment. If that comes off, it will be very good for the future of the country.”
Van der Merwe thinks there are still many problems ahead for South Africa. “It’s a Third World country with a lot of First World elements. One of the biggest problems is unemployment, which is the reason for the relatively high crime rate. Employment needs to be tackled on an ongoing, not ad hoc, basis.”
The World Cup, he says, presents a golden opportunity. “Yes, there will be mistakes, but at the moment we are very positive that interest from the different sectors of the economy will ensure it is a great success.”
Van der Merwe and his wife, Marietjie, have been married for 39 years and have two daughters and one son. “Everybody in the family is now involved in one way or another with the hospitality sector,” he says. “My wife, for example, runs a small boutique hotel, [my] son Stephan is in charge of the wine estate, my elder daughter has her own wine estate, looks after the Riviera on Vaal Hotel & Country Club, and is also responsible for Zorgvliet’s Internet marketing, while my younger daughter has a wine farm and lodging business. “They may operate from family trust land or property, but everyone has their own company and shareholding.”
Each of the van der Merwe children had to gain experience running their own business before becoming involved in the family-owned one.
“You can never dictate from the grave, but my wife and I hope that when we are not around anymore our children will build on the legacy they are part of and helping to develop.”
Van der Merwe spends much of his time on the road or in the air, visiting the various property interests. “Although we try to have a set schedule, sometimes a particular business requires extra support and a specific focus. For my wife and I, the family’s business interests are a seven-day-a-week job. We spend 100% of our time committed to the Zorgvliet Group.”
He admits that he is a workaholic. “But then so, too, is my wife! We have an apartment on the Natal coast, but I would find it difficult to relax even there, for my mind would constantly be fully occupied with what was going on in the business.”
Van der Merwe says he would love to retire eventually and hand more responsibility to his children. “It took many years and a lot of hard work to establish what is now a thriving asset and business base. I don’t want to walk away until the time is right. The trouble is, I’ve no idea when that time will be!”
Cape Town, South Africa
Zorgvliet embraces a variety of complementary business interests, including Zorgvliet Wine Estate(1,4) in the wine heartland of Stellenbosch, the five-star Riviera on Vaal Hotel & Country Club(2) in Gauteng (not far from where van der Merwe grew up), Dinkweng Safari Camp and Ka’Ingo Private Reserve & Spa(3) near Vaalwater in Limpopo Province, the King George Hotel on the Garden Route, Zorgvliet Private Residence Club and various travel agencies.
Home to the Zorgvliet Wine Estate, Stellenbosch lies 28km from Cape Town International Airport, and is an ideal base from which to explore the wine routes of Cape Town, Peninsula, Whale Route, and West Coast.
??Founded in 1679 on the banks of the Eerste River (‘First River’), Stellenbosch is the oldest town in South Africa after Cape Town, and home to one of the most prestigious old wine regions in the world.??