In her own right

Published 24 May 2012 00:01, Updated 31 May 2012 00:08

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In her own right

Structured: Patricia Ilhan (net wealth $300 million) carefully allocates time to business and family Photo: Josh Robenstone

It doesn’t matter what you achieve, or who you are in the adult world, to your kids you’ll only ever be mum or dad. It is this philosophy that Patricia Ilhan says keeps her feet on the ground and has enabled her to carry on when her husband John Ilhan, who built the Crazy John’s mobile phone empire, passed away suddenly in 2007 at just 42 years of age.

“The only way to manage is to have a very structured approach and cram everything in between 9am and 3pm,” Patricia says. “I keep my business within school hours and also try to spend school holidays with the kids so that when I’m with them, they get all my attention.”

With four children between the ages of 14 and five, a charitable foundation set up to combat life-threatening food allergies such as anaphylaxis, a deep personal commitment to men’s health issues and an investment portfolio spread across property and equities – structure and switching is the only strategy that keeps Patricia sane.

“As soon as I see the kids, I just switch modes; they don’t understand what’s going on in the background, although I will expect a bit more from them as they are growing up,” Patricia says. “They don’t see the level of responsibility I carry, they just see their mum.”

Patricia was on the phone to the local medical centre in 2007 when the police knocked on the door to deliver the news that her husband had passed away while jogging in the local area.

Four days later, police had cordoned off the roads around the mosque in the working class suburb of Broadmeadows in Melbourne in preparation for what would be the largest gatherings seen on the site.

Addressing more than 5000 mourners, Iman Mehmet Yosulmaz farewelled John Ilhan, describing him as generous, helpful and humble person who did not forget his Turkish heritage but looked forward to the future as an Australian. Among the crowd there were regular worshippers, locals of all faiths and beliefs, business leaders, sports stars, politicians and Patricia saying goodbye to her “true soul mate”.

Having arrived from Turkey at five years of age, John was educated at local public schools and started his career in a sales role at Ford. He then went into consumer electronics, turning the underperforming Brunswick Strathfield Car Radios store into the most successful in Victoria. Frustrated that this success was neither recognised nor rewarded, in 1991 he set up his own mobile phone business.

A psychology graduate, Patricia had worked with computer company IBM in a graduate role straight out of university then transferred to Telstra as the market for mobile phones began to boom in the 1990s. That’s where she and John met as he was just starting out with one store and lots of energy.

“He was my client at Telstra, so I watched the business grow and really understood it from the beginning,” Patricia says. “Then, as we started getting closer, I went into the corporate side of Telstra, which gave me a lot more insight into senior management.”

By the time they were married and began a family in 1996, Patricia had developed a deep understanding not only of the retail side of the business of the Crazy John’s stores but also of the personalities and deals of service providers. But she stepped back from corporate life to give John the space and time he needed to keep the business going.

“The business was John’s baby, so when we began a family he focused on his company and I managed everything else other than the business, it was just the way things happened,” Patricia says.

By 2003, at 38 years old, John was Australia’s richest person under 40, worth an estimated $200 million, with more than 30 Crazy John mobile phone stores across four states. An energetic and enthusiastic entrepreneur, he continued to expand the business and develop other ideas, and by the time he passed away, had more than 20 registered companies and a personal fortune of more than $310 million.

John’s sudden death left Patricia with little time to mourn. She had no choice but to take on the role of business leader and parent, while also managing the Ilhan Food Allergy Foundation, which the couple had created following the diagnosis of their daughter Jaida with a life threatening peanut allergy.

Patricia immediately began attending board meetings and getting up to speed with the company’s operations but says she spent most of her time listening rather than talking. At the same time, she was also wading though her husband’s business papers in an attempt to understand which companies were ongoing ventures and which were merely ideas with an ABN.

Gathering around her a group of trusted advisers, Patricia quickly decided to sell her majority stake in Crazy John’s and invest the funds in other areas, rather than continue to operate what was at the time Australia’s second largest mobile phone retail company. Bringing her previous corporate experience to the fore, Patricia also appointed a nanny and a house manager to keep everything ticking over at home.

After four months of deliberation, Vodafone announced in February 2008 that it would buy Patricia’s 75 per cent stake in Crazy John’s mobile retail chain and she began restructuring her investment portfolio, focusing on property, Australian securities and fixed-interest accounts .

“I’d had experience in business but handling large amounts of money is definitely very stressful and I’ve had to learn a huge amount about handling investments,” Patricia says. “I don’t have the time or luxury to dabble in risky investments which may or may not take off but I do keep my eye out for good commercial investments and if something interesting comes up, I’ll certainly consider it.”

The business side of Patricia’s personality has developed over the past four years and she has become more cautious when it comes to trust and friendships, especially following a bitter legal battle with a former friend, Billy Seri.

“He was like an uncle to my children and I was good friends with his wife but now the relationship is totally severed,” Patricia says with regret. “I’m a bit more cautious and much more thorough than I was four years ago, which is understandable considering the games I’m playing in now.”

And in between business and family commitments, downtime for Patricia is spent travelling with her family, or sailing with her partner, Melbourne businessman John Mousaferiadis.

“Travel is my one indulgence and we’re always going somewhere new, although we’ve been to Disneyland in California twice. Dubai was the other place which was like a magical playground,” Patricia says.

“When I’m with the kids, I’m with them 100 per cent and when I’m with John, I’m with him 100 per cent.

“It is important not to let external factors influence your relationship. In the world we live in there will always be someone to make a comment but when I’m together, with the kids or with John, then it’s just about us.”

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