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Oct 24, 2007

John Ilhan beyond the eulogies

What will The Chaser say on tonight’s program about the extraordinary media out-pouring following the shock death of Crazy John Ilhan. Whilst Ilhan’s story is quite remarkable, here’s a more sober account of his life, writes Stephen Mayne.

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So, what will The Chaser say on tonight’s program about the extraordinary media out-pouring following the shock death of Crazy John Ilhan.

The Chaser’s point, that we all go over the top eulogising the dead, is demonstrated amply by the Herald Sun today which gave Ilhan the whole of pages 1,3,4, and 5, plus a small editorial, part of the opinion page and a final story on the front of its business section.

Whilst Ilhan’s story is quite remarkable, here’s a more sober Chaseresque account of his life:

Came to Australia from Turkey as a Muslim toddler called Mustafa Ilhan, parents changed his name to fit in, struggled through Broadmeadows High, dropped out of Melbourne’s third string LaTrobe University, parents helped him get a job at Ford, didn’t really cut it as a conventional salesman, went to Strathfield and mastered the game of high pressure mobile phone selling in Melbourne’s multicultural northern suburbs but then fell out with his bosses over commission bonuses.

Set up Mobileworld Communications in 1991, fell out with business partner, changed name to Crazy John’s, went into voluntary administration in 1997 but still made a fortune milking excessive Telstra commissions.

The high-pressure, high-volume mobile floggers were always going to attract the big commissions when the Hawke Government unleashed Optus and Vodafone on Telstra in the early 1990s. And when the Howard Government privatised one-third of Telstra and hand-picked Ziggy Switkowski to run the show, the pressure was really on to crank up sales and boost market share.

Ziggy’s controversial mate Ted Pretty did some pretty juicy deals, offering $15 per sale plus all sorts of other commissions, such that Crazy John was still making good cash selling phones for $1 and locking up customers on two-year contracts.

Crazy John’s real business skill was milking Telstra and Branson-style PR stunts. There was no product innovation, exports or technology, just a media-savvy bloke tapping Australia’s debt-funded consumer binge for gadgets like the latest mobile.

Telstra later worked out they were being far too generous and attempted to wriggle out of its contract, copping a $70 million writ from Crazy John, who has left a couple of broken business partnerships behind him.

Many thought Ilhan’s business would suffer on leaving Telstra but he sold a 25% stake to the Smorgon family – the Jewish establishment meets Australia’s most successful Muslim businessman – for $60 million a couple of months ago just as his new deal with Vodafone was kicking in.

John Ilhan sounds Aussie, his wife Patricia doesn’t wear a burqa and his kids go to an establishment Anglican school. Talk about fitting in. No wonder even John Howard is singing Crazy John’s praises.

Having said all that, I spent three days at a future of Australia retreat with Crazy John last year and found him to be a really nice guy. While he was no Harvard MBA, he cared about Australia’s future and has also given plenty back.

Vale John Ilhan. A sad loss, indeed.

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