In memory of Mustafa ‘John’ Ilhan

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John Ilhan was a late Australian entrepreneur. He was born in Turkey in 1965 and passed away on 23 October 2007. In his 42 years of living  he left his city [Melbourne] and community in a better state than which he found it.

What he was most known for were his mobile phone stores – that made the once luxury item, accessible to the wider public. His desire was for everybody to one day own a mobile phone. He had to take on many rivals, obstacles and giants – to achieve this – but in the end he prevailed at playing the game his way and always  achieving a win-win for the customer and his business.

This article expresses the impact John Ilhan has had on me, a young person and a son of migrants to Australia. I also hope to educate my friends and any readers of who John Ilhan was and why his life is important for all Australians to learn from.

I first heard the news of John Ilhan’s death while working at a desk job when the radio announced the event at around lunch time. At that time, I wasn’t very aware of who he was however, it made me feel for his family to lose this man at such a young age. I live in Canberra so Crazy John’s was more famous from the advertising at sporting events than his local stores (there are only two in Canberra). I remember telling the news to a co-worker who knew more about him as she had seen an interview about him on the programme ‘compass’ on the ABC. I felt eager to find out more and went on the internet to get a view of him on google images. I had recognized the face from a show about businessmen and entrepreneurs (it was Catalyst on ABC). It was at that point that I started to discover more about this ‘crazy John’.

It may have been in that same week that I watched ‘The World’s Richest People’ on Foxtel which featured him in that episode. I was blown away from what I learned in those 20 minutes. When the show went on to the next featured person, I was upset that his section wasn’t long enough – so that I could learn more about him. He came across as being such a charismatic and sincere person. When you consider his background, the difficulties his family had adapting to Australia and all the attacks he’d faced – from his school yard years to his early days as a business owner. Anyone one else in his shoes would’ve just given up and whinged about how hard an unfair life had treated him. He did the exact opposite in using all the bad experiences as learning opportunities and making the most out of his favourable moments.

Anyway, I taped the show and as soon as any of my friends came over to my house I made them watch it to see what they thought of him. One of my Arab friends was as moved as I was and we would often talk about how amazing his life has been and at the same time regret his passing at such a young age. The one thing that disappointed me was that I wish I had found out about him sooner. I wished there were more footage, interviews and books about him. At the time I was reading books about entrepreneurs like Donald Trump but John Ilhan was so much more relevant. He operated in our country, talked our language and made his success without much to start off with. I wish he had published a book before he died.

Then last week while I was in a book store I saw his face on the cover of a book in the management section. The book was called ‘a crazy life’. I picked it up, noticed that the foreward was written by his wife, Patricia. I didn’t even need to read the back before deciding to take the book with me. I was so happy, it felt like my wishes had been answered, so thank you to everybody involved in the book. I spent the following two days reading it from front to back.

Brief Biography

John Ilhan came to Australia with his older brother and parents when he was five years old. He grew up in a working class neighbourhood in Melbourne, Australia. This meant that not too many people from this part of the city would go on to become wealthy, let alone millionaires. He finished secondary education and studied for one year at University. He didn’t finish his degree, instead opting to start a career.

After a few years in a job that was not going to offer him promotions, he left to sell mobile phones for an electronics store chain. He was such a good salesman that he was given the opportunity to manage a store that was not doing very well. He turned that store around in no time and as the sales kept growing, so too did his commissions. This is where the pivotal moment in his professional life occurred.

The company refused to pay him some commissions owing over a period of 6 months. While the amount was not astounding, the principle behind it was a big issue for John. So he quit knowing that he didn’t deserve this treatment for all the contribution he made to the chain. He got the opportunity to open a store across the road from his old employer and started from scratch. Many threats, battles, personal hardship and 6 years later…he was able to stick the boot into his former employer as he bought out the building they occupied. They soon left the premises and Crazy John’s continued their successful run.

Around the corner (actually, 7 years later) was another Goliath that the ‘mobile phone king’ had to take on. This revolved around a similar scenario as before. Money was being withheld or unlawfully asked of him by his network supplier – who paid John commissions for every connection. After three years in court, John achieved a multi-million dollar settlement  and stuck the boot in again by  not renewing their contract, instead signing up with a multi-national mobile network operator to establish his own mobile network.

The John Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation

In 2006, John Ilhan established the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation with a donation of 1 million dollars. It basic goals are  1) Prevention 2) Better understanding of the problem and 3) To find a cure. His third daughter was discovered to be allergic to tree nuts. This is what brought about the initiative to start the foundation. Throughout his successful business life, John Ilhan was very generous in giving to numerous causes. This presented an opportunity for him to dedicate more attention to one charity and help thousands of parents and their children at the same time.

What he did best

I think the two assets that allowed John to succeed with the odds stacked against him were:

  1. His people skills – this allowed him to sell, negotiate well and motivate a large workforce under him
  2. His advertising creativity – there is no doubt that this was fundamental to his business’ growth

These personal characteristics aren’t the only reason he succeeded. They are complemented by the belief he had in his vision and the personal values that guided his decision making. Passion is another aspect that is alive in most entrepreneurs. I think John Ilhan was more of a sportsman than a businessman in the sense that he liked to work hard, compete against his rivals and have fun all at once.

What is his legacy?

I think John’s life can be used as an example and as inspiration for many youngsters around Australia as well as small business owners.

What he has proven is that despite barriers such as:

  • Ethnic background
  • Social status
  • Education level
  • Profession or industry

…you can still be successful in Australia. The other lesson is that you don’t have to exploit others or cheat to get rich. John employed his value system and ethics in every aspect of the business. He had a great sense of what was fair and what wasn’t. His reluctance to accept an unfair situation, his pride and a bit of stubbornness can be contributed to his success. The more unfair something was, the more he would fight to prove a point. This is one attribute of Australian culture that most people understand and respect.

John will forever be dearly missed by the Australian community. He was a living example of the success of multiculturalism and his life certainly increased tolerance and harmony that Australians have towards Muslims and immigrants in general. It is possible to have a peaceful co-existence between different cultures in Australia and for the whole community to benefit. I am so grateful that I never got chased home from school for having a darker complexion, or that none of my primary school teachers ever insulted me or put me down in front of a class of students. These are things that occurred to John Ilhan when he was young. I think Australia has come a long way since the days where racism wasn’t as frowned upon. We are lucky to be living in a time where the Federal Government has a positive approach and ideology towards multiculturalism as this influences the opinions that people construct and society’s views.

As mentioned before, so many different people can find relevance and motivation from Crazy John’s life. I hope we have more leaders with the attributes of John Ilhan. This story is truly worthy of a movie. John Ilhan is an Australian business icon.The business man Australia loved to love.

References used for this blog entry:

The worlds’ richest people

Dabkowski, S., Reid, A. 2009: A Crazy Life, 1st ed, Queensland: John Wiley & Sons Australia Ltd

References to other footage and material related to John Ilhan:

Youtube videos about John Ilhan

Video footage of ‘The World’s Richest People’
Video interview with Reuben Buchanan
A Current Affair report from 23 October 2009

Written articles and transcripts of interviews

ABC’s Compass interview about personal beliefs, ethics and morality
Transcript from ABC’s Catalyst: The science of  business, how to make it big
ABC’s Inside Business interview 1
ABC’s Inside Business interview 2
Article about John Ilhan and his faith
Biography at woopidoo

3 thoughts on “In memory of Mustafa ‘John’ Ilhan

  1. More people should aspire to learn from Donald Trump…his businees acumen is 2nd to none!

  2. More people should aspire to learn from Donald Trump…his businees acumen is 2nd to none!

  3. I’ve seen the Discovery Channel documentary entitled, “World’s Richest People” a couple of days ago and got so inspired by his story. And I was shocked to know that this great man is dead.

    The legacies he left: a. the opportunities out there are endless b. family is priceless.

    RIP John Ilhan. You will always be remembered. And thank you for inspiring me and other people.

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