(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on Ashley Frye, the first ever fulltime Executive Director of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association. This article provides a full profile of Frye; the second article will focus on his plans for the membership organization.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“I’ve always been in love with cars,” Ashley Frye says. Now, after careers with two Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), he’s bringing that passion and knowledge to his new challenge as the first ever fulltime Executive Director of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association (TAMA).
Automotive is big business in the Volunteer State with three OEMs – GM, Nissan and Volkswagen – and more than 930 suppliers located in 88 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Total employment exceeds 118,000. In 2015, 6.3 percent of all U.S.made cars, light trucks and SUVs – 735,500 vehicles to be exact – were produced in the Volunteer State.
These facts underscore the critical importance of the sector, so it was natural that TAMA needed an industry savvy individual to take the reins of the statewide association. In Frye, they found someone who fit the profile and also had Tennessee ties.
“I was born in Japan,” Frye said. His father was in the military, so the family moved around the world. Stops included Lincoln, NE; Del Rio, TX; Blytheville, AR; High Wycombe, England; and eventually Nashville.
“My father bought ‘bugs’ and I maintained them,” Frye says of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle. “I learned how to be an automotive mechanic from him.”
After high school graduation, Frye enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University, but that lasted only 3 years before he joined the Army as an enlisted man.
“I got burned out on school,” he says. In the Army, Frye had a chance to go to Officer Candidate School where he was commissioned as an armor officer. While stationed in Germany he was able to finish his undergraduate education.
He eventually left the Army with one goal in mind – secure some additional training and open an automotive repair shop. Those plans were interrupted when the Guidance Counselor at the vocational technical school Frye was attending recommended that he explore a job with Tennessee’s first OEM.
“I was hired by Nissan as a Process Engineer and started work June 3, 1981,” Frye said. It was the construction period for the new plant in Smyrna, and Frye was one of the early employees.
Most of his assignments at Nissan involved trim and chassis. Over the 22 years he was with the company, Frye says he made 45 trips to Japan and had the opportunity to help layout and build Nissan’s new plant in Canton, MS.
“I was going 100 miles per hour,” he says of his last Nissan assignment as Engineering Manager overseeing three areas at the two plants. Despite this hectic pace he also managed to obtain a Masters in Industrial Technology from MTSU.
In April of 2002, Hyundai announced plans to build its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Alabama, and soon thereafter came a call from a recruiter.
“It was an opportunity of a lifetime, to be involved in a third green field project and return to production operations,” Frye says. “I resigned on April Fool’s Day of 2003 and moved to Montgomery.”
He was the second American hired by the Korean parent company into the production division for its Alabama subsidiary. Frye became Vice President of Production in 2009, a post held until he retired six years later.
“That job was a true 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says of the responsibilities. “When I retired I rewarded myself by taking a full year off. The year ended recently and, thanks to a call from TAMA President Rick Youngblood, Frye is ready for his next challenge.
NEXT: The new Executive Director talks about his plans and priorities for the organization.