In Germany, he has been proclaimed Manager of the Year and Innovator and Entrepreneur of the Year, and in 2005 he received a lifetime achievement award from the U.S.-based International Chemists Association for creating the world’s first polymeric micro battery and smart card.
He served two terms as German Senator for the Economy in the EU, and much more. Angela Merkel and Steve Jobs both, in their own way, marked the career of this man, who they dubbed – “A great Serb – Tesla illuminated the world, while another Serb – Ilić – enabled it to be illuminated without cables and plugs”.
Luck follows the courageous, and in my development path, there were many lucky circumstances that marked my life. I only realised that much later, when I’d entered my more mature years. My mother, Olga, wanted me to study medicine, while I was far from the idea of delving into any studies. I played volleyball and earned more money than my father and mother combined, both of whom were education professionals. I wouldn’t have studied if at that time there’d been no possibility to enrol in the Faculty of Physical Chemistry without an entrance exam. I studied with Danka Savić, the granddaughter of the famous Pavel Savić, Bojan Radak, son of the director of the Vinča institute, Tijana Rajf, daughter of renowned lawyer Rajf, and one girl called Jelena who was actually the reason I started studying. This group dragged me forward and I didn’t merely graduate from college, but I graduated before all of them. Grades were not crucial for me, and they also all graduated with 10s.
Honecker wanted East Germany to make a better pacemaker than the Americans, who had one that functioned for just five years. I worked on the lithium battery that doubled the lifespan of that device
From this experience and from a sport I acquired life lessons that I still convey today to young people: “Choose your company; if I could finish college, you can do so too!”. That also applies to sport. If you don’t train – you won’t play; if you don’t attend college – you won’t graduate. If you haven’t tried to do something, you’ll regret it your entire life. It was also at that time that I realised what it means to be responsible for oneself.
I defended my graduate dissertation at the Vinča Institute – the characterisation of lithium alloys, and it happened that immediately after graduating I was offered the chance to go to Dresden, Germany, for my doctoral studies. I asked where it was twice because I’d never heard of Dresden. When I realised that Dresden was in East Germany and informed my parents, they started to cry. My Granddad, who I loved immensely, was the only one who supported me.
I didn’t particularly enjoy Dresden. I didn’t know the language and had various difficulties on a daily basis. However, when they heard that I played volleyball, they immediately included me in the college team, which then competed in the top league. And if there hadn’t been any volleyball, I would have returned home.
And, again, a factor of luck… I chose a theme for my dissertation that nobody wanted to address – lithium batteries.
It was during one stay in Prague that I met Katarin Witt, then Germany’s most famous figure skater. It was an exciting experience, because the police followed us throughout our entire relationship, and probably continued following me afterwards. Of course, I knew who Katarina Witt was, but I didn’t really know that she was the personal protégé of Erich Honecker, then General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and the first man of East Germany.
It was at that time that I registered my first patent, even before my doctoral dissertation and professorship, I received an invitation to head a factory for pacemakers. Honecker wanted East Germany to outdo the Americans by extending the lifespan of pacemakers from five to ten years. I never asked, but I believe that my relationship, during which they could learn everything about me, was in the background of this incredible offer. This project enabled me to access all of the greatest economic and expert gatherings.
I soon received an invitation from West Germany (then known in the east as the BRD) to go to their side, which I wasn’t really very interested in doing at that moment. However, I was approached at a major symposium by the president of VARTA, who offered me a contract and salary disproportionately higher than the one I was then earning. I went for an interview at VARTA, but without reaching the agreement.
I’ve always stuck to the idea – if they won’t follow you strategically, go where they will. And I’ve never signed a contract lasting more than three years, because that gave me freedom. That’s still the case today
Six months later, I received a new offer from VARTA, to go to their factory to see if I would like something … And so, I went to VARTA.
I remember specifically that it was 30th April 1987, and that it was snowing. My first encounter with Ellwangen, the town where the factory was located, was completely discouraging: a small town, nothing to be seen anywhere, and with snow falling in the middle of spring… They led me to the main factory site, where I was confronted by a scene that I will never forget: everything black, a factory full of sacks of carbonate, dust on all sides, with workers wearing masks on their faces. That shock led to me instantly deciding: here everything is so much in its infancy that no matter what I do it will be a good, new experience. And over the next decade, Varta grew to become the most modern factory in Europe, which it remains to this day.
I started working in development from scratch and advanced to the position of head director. There were many misunderstandings there because they didn’t deviate from their rules. They criticised me for adapting the company to suit my profile, for not optimising the greatest possible profit, for investing and risking a lot with new products. I realised, however, that, despite everything, I had a great opportunity to take everything I thought up in development operations and immediately test that in production and manufacture. Everything was in one place, and that’s a great advantage for every innovator. I worked up to 20 hours per day because I was driven by the opportunity to implement my ideas in the electronics industry, which had then started developing dynamically.
I toured global achievements in the electronics industry in order to determine the energy demands of new and future components. Taipei was then a hub for the production of electronic components with a chip from the USA. I had a large number of different electrochemical systems, protected by patents, which I could quickly include in production. And then large orders of millions of units started, which demanded the quick designing of new production machines and high standards of quality.
At that time, 1988, Varta wasn’t doing very well, but I went to the main bosses, among whom was a then an already elderly Herbert Quandt, one of Germany’s most famous industrialists and owners, who among other things owned shares in Varta. I showed him a battery that was smaller than a metal Deutschmark coin and he wanted to know if I could sell it for one Deutschmark. I answered positively and thus received my first investment.
I think the combination of team sports and knowhow is the best. There you either survive or disappear. That’s a fantastic symbiosis and the mobilisation of communal energy
I later led various sectors of Varta, where I had complete freedom to make decisions. To this day I’ve never signed a contract with a duration exceeding three years because that gave me creative freedom and less financial security. I have always sought my own expression; I never wanted to be a copy of the best. And today I advise young people to take the best from everyone but to create their own mosaic of solutions. If they are only guided by their role models, they’ll never become the greatest, rather only copies of greats. That’s the key thing that propels, elevates and mobilises one to become successful. And we should never repeat mistakes previously made. There are always mistakes in work, but it’s unacceptable to repeat them! When at least 50% of the decisions I make during a year are good ones, I am satisfied! I don’t allow myself, or my co-workers, or even my daughter Olga, to repeat the same mistakes!
Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, so we had a meeting at which I showed him a polymer microbattery for the iPod. Steve had already begun working on the “NotB” project and in conversation the problem of what would happen when the “NotB” lost electricity arose. Upon returning to Europe, I realised on the plane that it wasn’t enough just to create a new battery, but also to come up with a need for a new battery.
Computers were then losing huge amounts of data if one didn’t immediately save. During the flight to Europe, we came up with the idea of the Bridging-Battery (which takes over the function of the main battery when it empties). We returned to Cupertino, California, a few weeks later for a new meeting with Steve.
It was early morning and he’d just returned from jogging and while still sweating he said to us: “Guys, talk, I don’t have time; I have a meeting”. As he changed his clothes we introduced him to “bridging batteries”. We immediately received half a million dollars for the tools needed to build components, with Apple receiving absolute exclusivity. Jobs soon promoted his “indestructible computer” and that represented a genuine revolution in that industry.
I had a small lithium and lithium polymer battery, but I was unable to produce it. It took me another year to make a production line. This compelled me to also become an engineer, we created automated technology and immediately protected the patent in order to maintain an advantage for at least a year over our much larger competitors from Japan.
I met with Angela Merkel “as a punishment”. I didn’t graduate in Marxism and Leninism in Dresden, and they sent me to Leipzig, where Merkel was then, in 1984, working in a laboratory for physical chemistry. We later met again officially when she became Minister of Environmental Protection and Chancellor of Germany.
In order to bring Varta’s production plant back to Germany from Singapore, where the labour force was cheap, the province of Baden Wittenberg gave me several interest-free loans in the millions if I employed 100 people. I went to Berlin to get an interest-free loan from the highest level and there I again met Mrs Merkel, who was then environment minister.
When I opened the factory, I invited Merkel to open the factory and that was her first official public appearance, which also propelled me into the public eye. Chancellor Merkel still today cites the example of the return of Varta production to Germany.
There is something new in the electronics industry almost every six months, and if you don’t follow that step you lose out on designing in time and with it the market. When I closed Varta’s factory in Singapore, I dumped all the machines in the sea to ensure the competition wouldn’t copy them.
I recall the small battery for charging with a diameter of 3.6 mm, which we quickly outdid. And today its thickness has reached an unimaginable 0.4 mm.
And when its production started even German newspaper Die Welt (18th March 2006) elevated our interlocutor with the title of “der batteriepapst” [the battery pope]. Its unique chemistry and “thickness” shocked the world, and Ilić received worldwide recognition and became an interlocutor who people were happy to see in the electronics industry. Thus, after becoming the Father of the smart card he became the battery pope.
“ There isn’t an area in which my batteries are not used, and I’m particularly proud of some products in the medical industry. For instance, there is the miniature battery that is inserted into a capsule smaller than an aspirin tablet (diameter of 3 mm and thickness of 1.6 mm), which is swallowed and provides a complete recording of the intestines.
I’m also filled with pride by batteries for regulating insulin doses because that was the first battery that doesn’t produce electricity but rather releases pure molecular oxygen. That patent was later bought from me by Coca Cola, in order from it to recycle its cans.
I created a battery for hearing aids that led to me receiving the award for the best foreign product in America. Then-President Clinton invited me to go and receive the award, but I didn’t go because Serbia was being bombed at that time.
I’ve always strived to be something special, to never and in no way be a copy of the best. And today I advise young people to take the best from everyone, but to create their own mosaic
At the end of the last decade, the company INFINION was founded in Bavaria with the intention of becoming the leader in the production of dedicated chips. The idea was to also apply chips in film cameras, which until then were exclusively analogue. This was a new challenge for me. At that moment I felt as though “I can do it all”, so in 2007 I took on the position of CEO at ARRI and with my team propelled ARRI to become the world’s largest independent company for the production of film cameras for high-budget movies, light sources, scanners and copies for film.”
For ARRI’s lighting achievements in filming the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, Ilić received the 2009 Academy Award for Technical Achievement, as the greatest technical achievement in the film industry that year.
“I must admit that this meant a lot more to my associates than it did to me. For me, no Oscar can replace the open acknowledgement of experts, the competition and opponents. Sometimes when I’m touched by my Selevac pride I just say: a long time will pass before some manager wins the top five awards in Germany – and it will take much longer for a foreigner in Germany.” Some are of the opinion that a successful sportsman is destined to be a successful manager. And there are many such examples.
“ The combination of education and physical activity is, in my opinion, the best. Physical motor skills and motility of the mind. And that’s why I think the combination of sports and studying is the best – especially in team sports. There you either survive or disappear. That’s a fantastic symbiosis, with the mobilisation of communal energy in which you realise that you’re just one screw in an array. And a team only functions well if all screws are working. I’m not saying that you should relinquish your creativity, but rather that you need to subordinate your strength, quality and creativity to the success of the team. Of course, when it’s tough, it’s known who the ball is given to and who settles the match. When it comes to the final decision, it is known whose decision is final. And he must carry all responsibility. And I wanted both of them. When a team wins, the players are the winners, and when a company works well it is the workers who are the winners. When a team loses then it is the coach, or manager, who is to blame. That’s why I must always be ready to assume that unwanted negative responsibility.
I have made risky business decisions countless times. I developed the smart card long ago, but its practical application came after 13 years. The representatives of shareholders wanted to kick me out for investing tens of millions in that project. They asked me to suggest my successor. I found him, but they selected me again. I had intuition, but also the experiences of others. Risk is unpredictable, but I was happy to carry it. When the profit came, everyone forgot everything.
When I am convinced of something, I don’t quit. I learnt that in sports. When you’re sure you’re winning, you will win. If I hadn’t taken on that risk, very few products would carry my personal signature.
As in sport, in work, you also need to know where you’re going and who you’ll take with you. I’ve always said to my people – the train moves slowly if you want to jump aboard if you don’t want to then jump off while the train’s going slowly. It occurred that my co-workers didn’t always agree with my decisions. Then I did everything myself, working three times as much to justify my decision and achieve profit.
As chairman of the supervisory board of the Innovation Fund of Serbia, I’ve toured the whole of Serbia and I get the impression that there is no lack of creativity among Serbian entrepreneurs. The problem relates more to the inexperience of placements and unfamiliarity with the real needs of existing and potential foreign buyers. Moreover, there is also a lack of a small bank for economic development (even if it is state-owned) for all those who have good ideas but no initial capital. Apart from that, I don’t understand why we import that which we produce ourselves and/or can do on our own – here I’m referring primarily to information technology.
As in sport, in work you also need to know where you’re going and who you’ll take with you. I’ve always said to my people – the train moves slowly if you want to jump aboard, if you don’t want to then jump off while the train’s going slowlya
One misconception of Serbia is that we have a cheap workforce. We have a skilled workforce that has an income much lower than in other countries. This potential should be utilised in the best possible way, regardless of whether that’s done by domestic or foreign investors. Because smarts are the best, easiest and most expensive sales. We still haven’t emerged from the socialist way of thinking. Young people are now emerging from this misconception and the revitalisation of the small economy will soon come. Investing in the small economy, in small businesses – that is our future. Much more needs to be invested in education than is the case today, primarily through benefits for future engineers, chemists, physicists and, of course, IT experts, in order for there to be expert personnel in a decade or two.