JOHNNY McLean darts quickly around his slick Wickham warehouse office: upstairs to a mezzanine work space made from shipping containers; back down to the merchandise room, then into the chill-out area where his staff meet for breakfast and enjoy end-of-week barbecues.
“I’m a hawker of vintage stuff, the ’70s were badass,” the 38-year-old says modestly of the motocross bikes and sporty paraphernalia that add an old-school cool vibe to the sprawling space.
McLean’s Lusty Industries is a medium-sized action sports distributor – the fastest growing in the country in the past decade.
Dirt bike wunderkind Toby Price, world-class wakeboarder Tony Iacconi, V8 Supercar driver Will Davison and global speedway superstar and local boy Sam Masters are just some of the action atheletes the business sponsors. [Lusty also represented freestyle motocross rider Tyrone Gilks, who died during training at Maitland Showground in 2013).
On appearances, McLean has it all: a thriving business, loyal staff, a beachside home and the perks of taking his young family on working holidays to exotic places.
But looks can deceive, as they say, and if not for some serious sweat and the grace of a bank, he could well have been back living with his parents in Maitland.
“It’s been hard as f – – –. I’ve wanted to give up a million times,” McLean admits of his business trajectory, which includes the loss of a million-dollar plus contract, the threat of voluntary administration, costly legal wrangling and counselling to haul him out of depression.
It’s been hard as f – – –. I’ve wanted to give up a million times.
The son of a self-employed motor mechanic, McLean rode dirt bikes from a young age but was forced to quit at 11 when the money to fund his passion ran out.
“It was a shattering thing because I’d started when I was five – my world got pulled away,” he says.
The obsession stuck. He resumed racing after high school when he began drawing a wage, first getting a trade certificate as an electrical apprentice then “making good money” at Ulan Coal after studying electrical engineering and moving into IT software engineering.
In 2003 McLean was racing one weekend in Picton, in western Sydney, when he broke his leg badly and his boss gave him an ultimatum: it’s work or the bikes.
An avid reader of US motor sports magazines, McLean saw all the apparel and equipment brands that hadn’t entered the Australian market and got thinking.
He rang Racer X magazine, which had a clothing line on the side, and landed a deal as their Aussie distributor.
When the first shipment came, “I had no zero idea what I was doing,” he says, and promptly stored the merch in a spare room in a house in Waratah West he’d bought with his partner, Helen Bird.
“I just started seeding the gear out through the mates I raced with and kept working as an engineer during the day, and Helen posted the orders when she was on breaks from her uni classes,” he says.
Helen, a PE teacher who met McLean at now defunct Newcastle nightclub Mercury in 2000, fondly recalls being pulled aside by Waratah Post Office staff a couple of months after she made weekly visits to mail out Lusty Industries merchandise.
“One of the ladies said, ‘We have to ask, what is in these boxes?’ and when I said T-shirts and caps I think they were really let down,” she laughs, “because they thought I was sending dildos or sex toys because of the word Lusty.”
To the contrary, in all of the wheeling and dealing in the testosterone-charged sector, McLean has worked hard to maintain a squeaky clean brand that aligns with his and partner Helen’s values.
“We don’t use sex to sell, we do shit differently,” he says.
By the end of 2004 sales were on the rise and during a trip to the US, McLean landed an exclusive distribution deal with luxury sports bag brand Ogio.
“I had no money and I was sleeping in my hire car and I was just convincing people to give us the OK,” he recalls.
Temporarily taking on a business partner, Lusty Industries shifted to a Cardiff warehouse and took on more brands, McLean all the while travelling six hours a day to keep his Ulan mining job.
He went out on his own as a consultant engineer, funneling all his wages back into Lusty and then hiring his sister Cath as his first employee.
In 2007 Lusty Industries won exclusive rights as the Australian action sports distributor for then unknown player GoPro.
“It took us from organic growth to basically overnight tripling our growth each year,” he says, adding that over the next five years his staff levels went from 2 to close to 40.
The company moved to a bigger premise in Beresfield, McLean still hanging on to his mining work, before Lusty picked up influential motor cross and biking brand Troy Lee Designs.
“It was a milestone for us,” says McLean, who often takes calls from Lee, an artist who puts the finishing touches on all his products.
The high was soon offset in early 2014, when McLean had just returned from a working trip to meet his US brand stable when GoPro called to say they had decided to consolidate their distribution “effective immediately”.
The next day he learned his dad had prostate cancer [he recovered].
“[The GoPro decision] cost us 70 per cent of business and I laid off nine staff within 24 hours,” he said.
By this time a father to twin boys, Albee and Beckett, McLean says his sons, and Helen, was the only thing giving him the will to keep going.
Worse was to come: a week later the ACCC came knocking with a subpoena over what McLean labels fictitious claims of price-fixing.
“It was never proven who started it but we believe it came from a disgruntled and envious rival,” he says.
A costly legal battle followed that led to Lusty Industries’ being fully exonerated – and McLean took the time to frame the letter giving his business the all clear.
In October 2014, Lusty Industries took out a lease on the then rundown Wickham factory but within months the company looked likely to face voluntary administration.
The company had lost more than $1.6 million collectively from the GoPro blow, a wages blowout and legal fees amid dire national retail conditions.
“I called mum and dad and said ‘I might have to come home,” McLean recalls.
“VA was the next logical step but we worked with our bank and accountant, we worked our butts off to pull through it in the time required to prevent closing the business.”
Shedding staff and overheads helped McLean build a better business but the physical stress he endured was punishing.
“I was scared of failure and I had two little boys and had by then given my consultancy to a mate so there was nowhere else to run,” he says.
“I pretty much had a breakdown and I saw a counsellor after Hels pushed me there.”
For Helen, who has worked in pretty much every role at Lusty since joining the company in 2012, the bleak period was a gamechanger for both family and company.
“When GoPro went I could see he thought it was the end … I said ‘I know it’s tough, you’ll have to let people go, but in the long-term it’s going to be better,” she said.
She says she pushed McLean to seek counselling because he was “miserable, disconnected and always on his phone”.
“I tried to be as supportive as I could but I got to a point where I said, you know what, I’ve got two boys to look after, I can’t look after you too, you need to see someone to get through this or we’ll have to go our separate ways,” she recalls, adding that their twin sons, being “the light” in McLean’s life, were his incentive to keep going.
Picking up the pieces with new perspective, McLean dumped some toxic people in his life and by 2015 “I started with a fresh palate with rad people and said ‘let’s go”.
He’s proud of his Hunter heritage – he commissioned Ogio to make a gear bag called the Pasha Bulker – and of the fact he’s made a crust based in Newcastle.
“All the bigger companies said ‘you can’t distribute from Newcastle, you have to be in a capital city’ and I said ‘bulls*** I’m not moving anywhere’ and dealers (clients) fly in and see the warehouse and say ‘how do you do this’,” he says.
Federal Chamber of Automative Industries figures show a 6.6 per cent increase in motorcycles sales at the end of 2016 compared to a year earlier.
McLean continues to work hard to have a solid stable of ‘lifetime’ brands – including Santa Cruz bikes, Troy Lee Designs, Ogio, ODI, Five Ten and Crankbrothers – that will take the company into the future.
With loose plans to open a hole in the wall cafe in the warehouse, his approach to business 13 years on swings from sanguine to philosophical.
“It’s all made me realise that nice guys don’t finish first,” he says of his darkest days.
“Would I do it all again? No. But you don’t get to hit the rewind button.”
Mostly, though, he’s simply grateful.
“It’s a little surreal that for so long you grind and hustle to make ends meet with relentless hard work and sleepless nights and then all of sudden you pinch yourself each and every night that it has all started to pay off and the people left surrounding you are the ones you love and the ones that supported your journey through good and bad,” he says.
“I’m not sure if that’s too cheesy but it’s the truth.”