John Ilhan Crazy John's


established 1991; 800 employees; $200 million turnover

Think about how much of your working life is spent sending and reading e-mails, then try to guess how many hours a day a platinum-level chief executive like 'Crazy' John Ilhan is tied to his keyboard.

Try none.

And that's not because the mobile mogul has chosen to retire and consume some

of his $300 million-plus fortune. No, the Melbourne-based Ilhan simply refuses to use a PC, hasn't had one in his office for more than five years, and blows a raspberry at the idea of a BlackBerry. 'Honestly, I wouldn't even know how to turn a computer on any more. If I pretend to use one at work the guys all start laughing because they know I've got no idea,' he explains.

Ilhan booted out his computer because 'I was losing so much of my day on it, losing business partners, losing staff,' he says. 'I like to communicate by vision, by sight and verbally, and I thought, I can't keep doing this. So my executive assistant, Amanda, took over.

She reads everything. She knows what I'm thinking and how I do things.'

E-mails are presented to him in point form, and Ilhan says everyone gets a response of some kind—he just doesn't have to write it. He's not big on paperwork, either. 'I'll never read anything longer than three pages. I'm not good with detail,' Ilhan admits. Avoiding both forms of mental clutter frees him up for the important stuff: 'It means I get to spend time doing the things that really matter. I'd rather go around and visit stores, meet with staff, get involved in training, be with the guys on the front line, give them motivation.

That's my drug. I was tied to the office. Now I enjoy my job a whole lot more.'

For Ilhan, it's always been about It means I get to spend the personal touch.

time doing the things that He has the patter really matter- rd rather g°

of a lifelong salesman but little of the

around and visit stores, meet with staff, get involved in training, be

impersonal fakery With the guys on the front most people associ- line, give them motivation. ate with that role. In That's my drug. 9 short, he's convincing. He must have been compellingly so back in 1991 when, aged twenty-five, he set up his first mobile-phone shop. It contained precisely zero mobile phones—except his own. 'I only had $1000 in my pocket. I borrowed about $2000 off Mum and Dad to buy a phone, and a lot of my mates were tradesmen so they helped build the place, which was basically just a bench with brochures,' he says. 'I had enough money in my pocket to buy one phone at a time—they were thousands of dollars each still at that stage. So I just sold off brochures. I'd sell a phone, shut the shop and drive to the city and buy it for the customer. I had to sell myself, because that's all I had. I was a bit naive and young and stupid because, when you worked the numbers, how could it

work? But when you believe in yourself it's not the numbers that matter, it's about, "I can sell. People like me." It's that young, naive attitude, and you just work like crazy.'

Ilhan, the Turkish-born, fiercely proud Australian whose real first name is Mustapha, hasn't eased up on the work ethic since. Initially, he laughs off suggestions that he once worked eighteen-hour days. 'No, it wouldn't be that much. Let's see: I start at 7 a.m. and it would only be, um, sixteen hours a day. But then I do usually go until midnight, so it probably is eighteen hours. Oh my God! That's a lot . . .'

But it's mostly recreation, he explains: 'When you do something you love, it's not really work. And I've been doing it for sixteen years—it's just part of what you do. I've been lucky, I've chosen a field I love, so it's not work. I love dealing with people. I love the challenges of growing a business.

It's like a work of art—you always try to improve it.'

After dropping out of university two months into an arts degree, Ilhan took a temporary job on the Ford production line in his home suburb of Broadmeadows, Melbourne. He ended up staying more than three years but left after becoming frustrated that graduates were getting promoted and he wasn't. A job came up selling phones at Strathfield Car Radio, and as soon as Ilhan started he knew he had found his calling. He quickly became the company's top salesman. Then a dispute over his commission payments made him so angry he walked out—and set up his own shop, right across the road.

After building a loyal base of customers, he got his big break when Telstra offered to back his business. By 1994 he had half a dozen stores in Melbourne, a rate of growth he now realises was excessive: 'I relied on relationships and handshake deals rather than contracts. I grew too quickly and then Telstra changed its strategy and cut our commissions and I didn't get paid for about six months,' Ilhan recalls.

While he was feeling the pressure financially, his personal life also hit rock bottom when his brother committed suicide. 'At the same time, the competition really hated my guts and they used to leave threatening notes on my wind-screen saying, "You're finished now." It was a tough time,' Ilhan says. 'That was 1996, and I'd already made my first million, but then I very nearly went bankrupt. I was in administration, so I lost all that. The first million was the hardest to make and the easiest to lose.'

The experience taught him some hard but valuable lessons. 'After that I realised my own weaknesses and I employed people with finance backgrounds. I ended up being the visionary and employing people who could get me to that vision.'

The only hurdle Ilhan still had to clear was his business name. Telstra execs were not big fans of the Crazy John's label. 'They hounded me, saying it was unprofessional and it wouldn't work.

That went on for years, but they were so wrong,' Ilhan laughs.

By 2003 he was on a roll, opening seventy stores in eighteen months and crushing all rivals—including Strathfield Car Radio. Ilhan then found himself at the top of BRW's Young Rich List in 2005, with a fortune estimated at $300 million. 'It was funny seeing that, considering what I had started from,' he says. Success had crept up on him: 'You just work hard and the rewards come. It's not like winning Lotto overnight—you don't think, Wow, I'm rich! I only really noticed it when they mentioned it but, being a bit competitive, I did like being No. 1. The $300 million figure was right at the time. It's a bit more now, but in the end you don't work for the money. At the start you do, because you have to pay the bills. But after that it becomes about challenges and success.'

Ilhan clearly remembers the first thing he bought when he started feeling rich: a secondhand, smashed up brown Porsche 930. 'When I was sixteen I said to Mum, "One day, I'm going to have my own business, a house by the beach and a Porsche!" I couldn't afford a new one, but I loved that car. I never did buy a new Porsche.' Instead, Ilhan now drives a Bentley, after ditching his Lamborghini. He's also got the $15 million home by the beach, in Brighton, but the house he's proudest of is the one he bought for his parents, with whom he lived until he was thirty. 'I built them a new house in Broadmeadows because they refused to move; they thought it was a big thing just moving across the suburb,' he says.

'It was wonderful to be able to do that for them. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for their support. They said, "If you fail, there will always be a bed here for you—we're always behind you." And that support was crucial, because I knew if I failed they'd still love me—so I could try anything.'

Stephen Corby

golden rules

Always have humility.

Be compassionate.

Be ruthless with your business strategy, but not with individuals.

Always give back to the community.

Whatever you do, pick something you love and never, ever give up.

Take risks and learn from your mistakes.


John Ilhan died shortly after this interview was first published, in October 2007.

His 75 per cent stake in Crazy John's automatically passed to his wife, Patricia.

She held on to it for a while but, with four children under ten, keeping it on the fast track proved too much.

Ilhan was replaced as chief executive by Brendan Fleiter, who had worked with him since 1996. 'The whole company was in shock for a while,' says Fleiter. 'So many people knew him personally, and his very first employee still works here after seventeen years. So it was a personal loss as well as a professional one. But we knew that if he was watching, he'd want us all to get on with it. He would have thought it was a great branding exercise—great publicity. I joked with staff afterwards that the one day he got his face on the front page of all the papers, he wasn't around to see it. But he would have wanted everybody to keep the business growing.'

A year after Ilhan's death, his wife and other shareholders sold the business to Vodafone

Hutchison. 'The slowdown has hardly hit us at all,' says Fleiter. 'Mobile telcos is a very defensive place to be, and we are still expanding with new products such as pre-pay and contract mobile and broadband services.'

Ilhan, it seems, put Crazy John's on a sound enough base that it can get along calmly without him.

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Источник: Nick Gardner. How. I made-.my first million. 26 self-made millionaires reveal the secrets to their success. 2010

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