John Ilhan: The Early Years of One Crazy Mobile Phone Entrepreneur

He might have been known as ‘Crazy John', but this was one savvy businessman. John Ilhan migrated to Australia and went on to found one of the largest privately held mobile phone companies in the industry. He even became the richest Australian under 40 years of age just a few years prior to his death in 2007. John Ilhan (born Mustafa Ilhan) was born on 23 January 1965 in Yozgat, Turkey. When he was just five years old, his family decided to pack up and move to Melbourne, Australia, where Ilhan grew up in the working-class suburban neighbourhood of Broadmeadows.

Life as an immigrant child was not easy for Ilhan, who frequently suffered the racist jokes of other kids. "It was quite tough, not many opportunities," he recalled. "I remember in primary school, one of my teachers said, ‘As for you young man, you haven't got much of a future.' Still, Ilhan would graduate high school and move on to university.

But Ilhan found himself bored with university life, and he was itching to make a name for himself in the outside world. He was nineteen years old when Ilhan heard about a job with Ford Motor Company, in the head office's Credit department. He did not get the job as Ford was only hiring internal candidates. But that was not the end of the road for Ilhan. Instead, he thought to himself, "‘Okay, why don't I get a job at Ford and then re-apply?'" It was, after all, much easier to get a job on the production line than in the offices.

And so that is exactly what Ilhan did. Despite his friends and family disagreeing with his choice, he told them, "Just watch me. I'm going to get that job in the office in two weeks - you'll see. I'm going to come to work in a suit."

After just one week on the production line fitting batteries into cars, Ilhan came into some good luck; a junior sales position had opened up in Ford's head office. Ilhan applied and, just as he predicted, got the job. He was off the factory floor one week faster than he had guessed.

His luck continued when he found that he and his new boss, George Stefanou, were more alike than not. Both immigrants, both close to their parents, both university dropouts, and both soccer fans, the two clicked instantly.

"John was a pretty shy sort of young bloke," recalls Stefanou. "He was certainly very family oriented and through the job he was able to not only be taught, but brought to the table his own ethics."

Ilhan's job consisted of managing all the former company executive driven cars. He would list their sale, obtain their roadworthy certificates, service and clean them, and show them. "He needed a little bit of attention to detail early on," says Stefanou, "but you only had to say it once, twice at the worst and it was done, and he never went backwards."

Ilhan was excelling in his position, but he was always looking for more. In his quest to move upwards within the company, Ilhan was constantly looked over for promotions he knew he was qualified for because of his lack of a university degree. After three years of the same thing, Ilhan finally decided it was time for change.

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