Staff, suppliers and many in Australia’s business and sporting communities will be shocked at the sudden death of John Ilhan at just 42. I know I was. I have met John Ilhan many times but always remember the first.
Crazy John Ilhan certainly knew how to make a first impression. The first time I walked into his South Melbourne office, he shook my hand, gave me his business card and established the ground rules. “I build relationships,” he told me. “If you are honest and upfront with me, then I will be honest and upfront with you.”
Over the years I would talk to Ilhan about a range of issues – his long-running battles with Telstra, his plans to sponsor or buy various football teams and, of course, his valuations for BRW’s various Rich Lists – and always found he stuck to his word. No question was off limits, no answer was off the record and his quotes were always extremely memorable.
Ilhan was a master at marketing and built brand awareness through a series of cheeky stunts and sponsorship deals. But it wasn’t all just bluff. He cleverly decided to create a decidedly low-rent brand, thinking that the Crazy John’s image would suggest value for money and cheap deals.
He hooked the punters in with low expectations and then worked hard to impress them and cement their loyalty. Crazy John’s key customers became big-spending tradesmen, who loved Crazy John’s budget image.
But while Ilhan was upfront and honest about most things in his life – his Islamic faith, his daughter’s battle with a peanut allergy, his own weaknesses as a businessman – it was sometimes difficult to separate Ilhan the man from Ilhan the brand.
I think I finally got to understand what drove Ilhan when I interviewed him mid-2006. Ilhan had been on top of BRW’s Young Rich since its inception in 2003, but turned 41 in 2006 and was no longer eligible. To mark his departure, we wanted to get Ilhan’s reflections on his business, his private life and his future plans.
We were talking about Ilhan’s motivations when he started recounting what he saw as the great injustices in his career. “I used to work at the Ford Motor Company and I knew my job better than most, yet I never got the promotions – the graduates got them,” he told me. “I was the best salesman at Strathfield Car Radio for three-and-a-half years and I never got paid what I was supposed to get paid, not in my mind.”
This was Ilhan at his most honest. While he enjoyed making money and loved the attention his business had given him, Ilhan was open enough to admit that he was driven by a desire for revenge against those who doubted him.
James Thomson is the former Young Rich List and Rich 200 editor at BRW, and will now write regularly about wealthy entrepreneurs for SmartCompany.
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