In Constant Motion

Ashley Frye strives to invest purpose in his life as head of the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association.

Photo by Sarah Abell

William Ashley Frye is constantly moving. It’s a lifestyle (change) that he says was instilled in him by his father at a young age. “My dad was a principal purveyor of this way of thinking as I was growing up: ‘Always volunteer to take on an additional task because with every task comes the opportunity to learn something new or acquire a new skill’,” he says. “So I was always the one to jump up and say, ‘I’ll do it’!”

It’s that same mindset that Frye credits his success in life, including his 34-year career in the automotive industry.  “Being raised in a military family and being in uniform myself for a handful of years certainly had what I would call a significant impact on the way I view things in terms of moving with a sense of purpose which is what you get beat into you when you’re in uniform. Whatever you do, you do it with a sense of purpose,” he says.

Frye’s love affair with cars began when as a small child, his father taught him the ins and outs of Volkswagens. “My dad actually was a career pilot…but during the second World War he was a machinist in the Navy,” he remembers. “So, he was a mechanically inclined kind of guy and he loved Volkswagens and he taught me how to do anything and everything involving Volkswagen Beetles.”

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Frye was one of the first engineers hired by Nissan in 1981 when they were kicking off the construction of their plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. He had just left the Army and was looking for a career path that would allow him to be around cars. “When I left the Army and was picked up by Nissan it was like an unbelievable dream come true,” he says. Frye was with Nissan for 22 years and during that time period he was a member of the management team responsible for building the company’s plant in Mississippi.

Frye left Nissan in 2003 and went to Hyundai where he stayed for twelve years. There he served several positions including plant manager, vice president of production, and American COO. It was in 2015, however, that he decided to slow things down.

“When I hit 62, I decided that I’ve had a lot of fun in automotive manufacturing but it’s time to throttle down a little bit and leave manufacturing and simply retire, which is what I did,” Frye says. He placed a “one-year moratorium” on himself to avoid anything work related and to instead focus on life with his family. It was during that brief window, that the Tennessee Automotive Manufacturers Association (TAMA) came calling.

“While I was in my one-year retirement, TAMA decided they wanted a full-time guy to help support our membership and strengthen it, grow it here in Tennessee…they were looking for someone who had the experience and the skillset that I had developed over the years,” Frye recalls.

Frye became the executive director of TAMA in May 2016 and has since made it his mission, he says, to put everything he has into supporting the automotive industry and everyone involved.

“Since I joined the association it’s been my mission to reach out to our membership to determine what their needs consist of and really it’s just two basic ones. As you can imagine there’s a desire amongst people in the industry to be able to network so we set up some events to facilitate that. And another one is workforce development.”

With help from the University of Tennessee’s Center for Industrial Services and representatives from the Tennessee Economic and Community Development office, TAMA was able to start the Meet Your Match Tennessee networking initiative. “We had our first one last year and our second one this past May,” he says. “We brought together buyers of automotive parts along with the sellers of those parts, so it’s a very specific and directed interaction between the two parties. It has been so well received…that the University of Tennessee Institute of Public Service actually awarded the three groups the Collaborator of the Year Award which is a big deal within the University of Tennessee circle.”

Frye adds that people shouldn’t be surprised by TAMA’s prominent role in the automotive industry and any doubters should catch up. “Automotive manufacturing is the most significant economic impact factor here in Tennessee. I like to say to folks, ‘It’s not whiskey and it’s not country music. It is in fact automotive manufacturing,’ so whatever we can do to help support and strengthen that industry I think it’s a wise use of everyone’s effort,” he says.

TAMA is in the middle of moving to Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Frye says their next point of focus is is the next Southern Automotive Conference, which is set to take place this month in Atlanta.  As usual, Frye is at the forefront with his hands fully submerged in the project. He says he has no plans to slow down, either with TAMA or in his own personal life, for the foreseeable future.

“You’ve got to be engaged in something. Whether it’s work related or philanthropic activities related, you name it. Whatever you can engage in…just do something meaningful not only for yourself but for your community. And that’s really what drives me as well: making a contribution to better the conditions of my family and the world I reside in and those who are around me. And I would say that’s also the driving influence behind TAMA.” 

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