Everyone has a Jon Kelly story.
That’s a line you’ll hear a lot from the resurgent heavy hauler and now global truck restorer who’s endured more than his fair share of tall tales in recent years.
After the high profile collapse of Kelly’s Heavy Haulage Australia (HHA) in 2015, the company that also spawned the hit 2012 TV series MegaTruckers, many of the theories as to why it all went so wrong were unfairly aimed at Kelly himself.
The truth is, says Kelly, is that by that stage HHA had sold a 50 per cent share to the now defunct McAleese which failed to cope with the mining downturn in 2014 and took Kelly’s heavy haulage juggernaut down with it.
No, he hadn’t gone to jail for fraud after embezzling money, one of the more fanciful stories Kelly can recall hearing.
“You know, 99.9 per cent of it is all bullshit,” Kelly tells Big Rigs of the stories and theories still doing the rounds on social media and in roadhouses across Australia.
“If I was going to embezzle money, I’d make sure it was for $350 million, not $2.50 and I wouldn’t be in Australia, I would have gone and bought Greg Norman’s yacht, and I’d be sitting on that with him.
“People need to realise that I wasn’t a part of that deal, and they forget that I sold the business, and I got dragged over the coals as well.
“What happened with HHA was unfortunate. It was a combination of bad timing and bad decisions on my behalf in terms of setting up a business and partnering with the wrong people. And a lot of it had to do with a massive economic change. It wasn’t just HHA and McAleese that got taken down. “I had to start again pretty much from ground zero. I had a $100 million dollar fleet and ended up with just the ashes to restart again with.”
After the collapse Kelly says he “did a bit of consulting” and assisted with some other businesses but always bought and sold trucks on the side, something he did through the HHA days as an expression of his love and passion for trucks.
Today, that ‘hobby’ has evolved into a fully-fledged dealership with Kelly and his loyal crew restoring trucks back to their former glory at the Brisbane-based Heavy Haulage Assets and sharing those stories with a new TV audience on the Discovery show Aussie Truck Rehab.
“I think to do something very original and very Australian has been awesome and it’s been even more awesome to not only showcase the trucks in Australia, but also the trucks that I’ve managed to get from all around the world, which is the unique part of the series,” Kelly, 42, says.
The truck sales and restoration side of the business accounts for about 80 per cent of Kelly’s focus, with the transport operation making up the rest.
“We run six heavy haulage trucks still. We’ve got a good mix of trailing equipment. We’ve still got a 10-axle platform with a dolly so we’ve got capacity up to 200 tonne.
“I run three of my own triple road train sets, and then we’ve got half a dozen other low loaders that are in the fleet as well, with some of the old HHA guys who have been with me for a long time.”
They include ‘Driver Dave’ Pancino, who has been with Kelly for almost 17 years.
“I am a hard person to work for, because I have exacting standards, and I like to set the benchmark which means I have to be hard,” adds Kelly when asked about industry misconceptions about him as a person.
“But if you talk to anyone that’s ever worked for me, through the HHA days and even now, you know, I pride myself on having the best in business work environment and the best in business in equipment and conditions.
“So, you know, there’s a lot of people that you hear on social media running their mouths, and a few of my old guys that have worked for me have said [in response] that clearly you don’t know Jon Kelly, or you’ve never worked for him because he was the best boss, or it was the best place to work.
“You’ve either got to work for me to understand how I work, or be in my personal inner-sanctum of friends to understand how I work, or as far as I’m concerned it’s just hearsay.”
When he looks back and reflects on those heady days of expansion at HHA, Kelly says he feels like he’s lived 16 lifetimes in his “short” 42 years.
But he’s also satisfied that he’ll “never die wondering”, a motto that still drives him today.
He’s thrilled with the way Heavy Haulage Assets has grown in the last two to three years. There’s always a slew of heavy-duty Kenworths, Macks, Western Stars – and even the occasional Peterbilt – moving through the refurbishing process and out the gate to new owners.
The operation is going so well that Kelly has just sold his current depot and inked a deal to move into a new premises in Archerfield, triple the size of his current operation.
“It’s never been about the money for me, to be honest,” explains Kelly.
“Sure, we make good money out of what we do, but the money isn’t the driving factor. “It’s always been about owning cool trucks, seeing them on the road, and painting a positive picture in the transport light, and being someone who people can call up and ask for advice or ideas.
“Ever since the show’s come out, we’ve been inundated with people ringing about wanting to do trucks up or wanting to do deals and sell us trucks and all that sort of stuff.
“It’s very early in the show’s days, but it’s definitely igniting the fires of people wanting to relive the history of these trucks.”
While the first series of Aussie Truck Rehab has now concluded – check Foxtel guides for reruns – there is already talk of a second series on Discovery.
Meanwhile, refurbished truck fans can also see get along to the Casino Truck Show on Saturday, August 5, where Kelly is planning to showcase 12 of the “coolest trucks” to roll out of the Heavy Haulage Assets’ yard.
The headline act for Kelly is undoubtedly ‘Mad Cow’, the fully restored Western Star 600hp 6900 Series that won Rig of the Year in 1997 before falling on hard times.
Kelly rescued it from the scrap heap a few years back, ended up selling it – a decision he still rues today – before buying it back and dedicating it to youngest son Joshua,11, who like his older brother James, 13, has inherited his father’s passion for trucks.
Kelly says Mad Cow holds a very special place in his heart. He recalls skipping schoolies in ’97 to jump in a truck to get to Darwin to watch the Rig of the Year ceremony alongside his equally besotted grandfather.
“That was probably the only non-Mack truck my grandfather ever took notice of. I just couldn’t believe how big and cool that truck was.
“Fast forward 30 years and now I own it. To restore it to its former glory, put it back on the map is an ultimate rags-to- riches story – and have it be the absolute favourite truck of my youngest son Josh – is a massive deal for me.”