Meet Allison Fry of Columbia Sportswear

Columbia Sportswear’s General Manager for North Asia Allison Fry implements creative and holistic approaches leading the company’s global materials hub in Taiwan. Fry has worked for Columbia Sportswear for nearly two decades, focusing on relationship management, manufacturing, and business strategy. With degrees in Apparel Design and Production and Dance Performance, Choreography and Ballet, Fry’s versatile background gives her unique perspectives in her managerial role. 

TOPICS Senior Editor Julia Bergström met with Fry at the Ghost Island Media recording studio in late August to discuss female leadership, transparency in the apparel industry, and the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. An abridged version of their conversation follows. Listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

You were a professional ballet dancer and later a designer before transitioning into manufacturing management. How has your diverse professional background influenced the way you work?  

My experience as a classically trained ballet dancer definitely formed and structured my design career. I still carry that experience into my manufacturing management, more so in some ways than my design experience.  

As a dancer, you need to build technical expertise and rehearse extensively to be successful. You also have to be synchronized with the music and other dancers. Adding to that, the costumes, theater, lighting, and all other parts have to blend well for you to put on an enjoyable performance for the audience. The audience then votes on your performance through applause, donations, and return visits, just like a customer does by returning to your store and purchasing your apparel. Customers will vote for your company if they like the quality or the aesthetic, and they’ll choose to come back and spend money if they like what you do.  

The structures of my dance career helped me hone my design and management capabilities. I knew that no matter how creative I was, I had to work well with people in merchandising, finance, and sourcing. I also knew that all parts have to come together if you want to build something that you can commercialize and make money from. The cross-functional communication, partnership building, and ability to take feedback and criticism that I learned through ballet have shaped who I am as a manager today.  

Who do you look up to in the design world? 

There’s a fleet of people I look up to. I love the story behind people like Levi Strauss, Hamilton Carhartt, and Ralph Lauren. They all succeeded thanks to the support of their families, and their families are still involved in the business today. You still see a link between what they first started designing and what they have in their product line now. Companies where the founders’ families are still active feel a unique sense of pride because they’re continuing the legacy of people who worked hard to build history. 

Paul Lamfrom, the founder of Columbia Sportswear, has a family that’s still highly visible in the company. His daughter, Gert Boyle, took the reins of the company and made it what it is today, and many members of the family are still very active in the company.  

Columbia started out as a hat company before morphing into hunting and fishing. It was an outdoor brand from the beginning, and that’s something that is still vibrant in the brand today. To honor that background, we recently produced 100 samples of the original Columbia Sportswear fishing vest. It was Gert Boyle’s first design, and it will be showcased in store windows worldwide. It’s really exciting to see that the original fishing vest is still alive and useful today. 

Did you have any mentors who helped you in your career? How did their guidance help shape you as a professional? 

At a point in my design career, I knew that I had passion beyond what I was doing, but I didn’t know where to go next. I only knew I wanted to be on the frontlines of design in a factory setting, working with the people cutting the fabric. At this time, I had many discussions with colleagues, one of whom was our country director of Sri Lanka.  

He told me that stepping outside one’s comfort zone is the precondition to self-development. That resonated with me because I was uncomfortable sitting in on meetings with people from finance and costing and discussing things I didn’t understand. But I knew that to get where I wanted to go, I would need to take a leap of faith and be okay with being uncomfortable. A few years later, that individual became my manager – he hired me and moved me to Korea, where I took on a country director role. 

How would you describe your management style? Do you have a particular leadership philosophy that you follow?  

I love building high-performing teams. The team doesn’t need me to handle the day-to-day business tasks – in fact, when you get involved in the minor details as a leader, you often get in the way. Instead, empowerment and building an inclusive environment are key aspects of setting your team up for success.  

A team can’t just be empowered by turning on a switch – it needs strong goals, strategies, processes, and clear SOPs and decision-making. Your people also need the skills to accomplish the company’s vision. As a leader, you should help your team develop skills and refine technical capabilities.  

Another important aspect is providing your people with a broad network. A leader who can help connect people and foster relationships will have an empowered team. When it comes to inclusiveness, you need to help people understand how to connect and collaborate upstream and downstream and how their role impacts both those flows. People also need to have cultural awareness and be aware of how they communicate. Helping your employees navigate the invisible differences in various settings is critical to building a strong team. 

What kind of skills or qualities do you look for in talent?  

I’ve always looked for a do-it-yourself attitude. There’s something special about people who take the initiative to find answers and become ambassadors for their own learning and development. People can help you learn and grow, but you’ve got to know what you want and how you can get there, and then ask for help.  

Other key characteristics I look for are a willingness to learn and grow, the ability to network, and recognition of the importance of maintaining healthy partnerships.   

Columbia’s history is also a history of female leadership. How does your company work to empower women? 

Gert Boyle, our founder’s daughter, was a tremendous force of nature. When she took over the brand, her husband had passed away, and she was trying to figure out whether she should keep the brand going. She decided to persevere, and it took a lot of hard work and dedication to break gender norms and be taken seriously. And she was always dedicated to empowering women.  

Boyle took a lot of pride in the HERproject, which is a unique program where we go into factories and work with women on different training modules. For example, HERhealth is related to health and well-being, understanding how to keep yourself healthy and take care of yourself when you’re sick. HERfinances focuses on saving, financial acumen, and independence, and HERrespect focuses on gender equality and opportunity for women.  

After completing the training modules, the workers will bring that knowledge to the factory floor, train their coworkers, and take it home to their families. That way, new thinking and abilities are spread throughout communities. We’ve had some great success with these programs in the form of less absenteeism, fewer compliance violations, and lower turnover because of health-related issues. 

Sustainability is a clear priority at Columbia. What areas of sustainability have you been working on in Taiwan?  

Taiwan is a material hub for Columbia Sportswear, which enables us to work directly with textile manufacturers on programs like Clean by Design, looking at suppliers’ energy and water usage optimization.  

We also have a sustainability manager with all of our suppliers here. His role is to connect directly with various groups, and he uses a tool called the Higg Index to track and monitor environmental output. He also works with suppliers to produce an annual climate report, which helps us and our partners understand greenhouse gas emissions baselines and implement best practices. We also get involved with our local team by working with an NGO called Rethink for beach cleanup.  

What do you like to do when you’re not working to relax and recharge? 

I love to get out and test our products so that I can provide our teams with feedback, and I was blown away when I first moved to Taiwan by how much green space there is just in the city. Taipei is such a safe place, and I love the outdoors and the city. I live in Tianmu, right at the base of the Tianmu historic trail. So it’s really fun to get out there and explore nature. From time to time, we even have monkeys in the neighborhood – it’s a cool outdoor experience. 

Depending on my schedule, I like to travel. When I do, I prefer to go to small islands outside my comfort zone. I love textiles, so I enjoy doing embroidery and hand sewing. I also taught myself how to paint during the pandemic through YouTube. I enjoy watercolors – so far I only have one style of flower that I’ve mastered, but it’s something I enjoy doing.