Ilhan family’s departure from Crazy John’s signals the end of an era

It’s impossible to imagine John Ilhan ever selling his beloved Crazy John’s empire to the world’s biggest mobile phone company, Vodafone.

It’s impossible to imagine John Ilhan ever selling his beloved Crazy John’s empire to the world’s biggest mobile phone company, Vodafone.

Ilhan thrived on his role as the underdog, and never forgot the way he was slighted by big companies such as Ford (where he felt he was passed over for promotions early in his career) and Telstra (with which he became embroiled in legal action).

Yet Ilhan was first and foremost a family man, and there is no doubt he would completely understand the decision of his wife Patricia to sell her 75% stake in Crazy John’s for an estimated $150 million.

Patricia has four children under 10 years of age to raise and support, and is also heavily involved in running the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation, which John started to raise money to fund research and education into food allergies after his young daughter developed a peanut allergy.

Patricia has eased herself out of the business in the 12 months since John’s death, serving on the company’s advisory board but having no involvement in day-to-day operations.

That will make the handover to Vodafone reasonably seamless.

In the last few years of John’s life, chief executive Brendan Fleiter and his top executives were basically running the business, with John providing more vision and cultural leadership than hands-on management. This team knows the company inside and out and Fleiter stresses it will be very much business as usual.

Even so, the departure of the Ilhan family from the company does signal the end of the era.

Before his death, Ilhan had spoken about his desire to work with Crazy John’s shareholder NAB on a plan to revolutionise the world of mobile banking and financial services.

It’s not clear how advanced the plans were – maybe it would have come to nothing. But it was this sort of bold, ambitious and entrepreneurial vision that Ilhan bought to the Crazy John’s.

The spirit and energy that John Ilhan bought to the company will still remain for some years at least. Indeed, Fleiter admits in today’s interview with SmartCompany that he regularly asks himself “what would John do?” when making a decision.

But the involvement of a large public company such as Vodafone will bring changes to the company’s culture and strategy. Exactly how Crazy John’s will fit with Vodafone’s current Australian operations remains unclear, but Fleiter will know that this new investor will have different views and philosophies to his former boss.

Crazy John’s might be entering a new growth phase, but it should never forget the legacy of its unique founder.

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