Core Careers: Mandy Fry
Mandy Fry is well known in the industry for her long stint leading design for Billabong Women’s and for co-founding Amuse Society.
Now she’s President of Z Supply, LLC., a Costa Mesa-based company that focuses solely on knits and its known for its fabrications, and casual, comfortable clothing that appeals to a wide demographic.
The company sells to retailers in the U.S. and Canada, is strictly a boutique business (including some surf shops). Unlike the brands Mandy has worked at in the past, Z Supply is less West Coast focused – the majority of the business comes from the East Coast, with a big concentration in New York. The company was founded in 2014 by Greg Garrett and John Zhao.
We talked to Mandy about what it’s like to be leading an entire company, how Z Supply has navigated the pandemic including some of the innovative digital tools the company has developed for retailers, and some key lessons she has learned during her career.
Here is a condensed version of our interview. See our entire video interview above.
You are president of the whole company now – what has that been like and how is it different from what you did before?
Mandy Fry: Oh, it’s a big job. It has its challenges. But overall, it’s absolutely great and I have an amazing team of people and that in itself makes it super enjoyable. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know and working with the two founders, John and Greg. And I guess what I’m really enjoying the most at Z Supply is as a leader with the two founders and my upper management, all being on the same page is not only efficient but extremely rewarding.
I can wake up in the morning and have an idea and I don’t have the feeling of 100 roadblocks. I’m surrounded by people who give me space to be creative and nimble and flexible and I feel energized to start my workday every day.
Just simply knowing that an idea can turn into reality and you can see it move the needle and affect the bottom line, it’s addicting.
I guess it’s different from Amuse Society mostly because it’s just a bigger and more complex business and we’re speaking to a broader demographic so the options of what I can do are endless.
Let’s pivot to what’s happened with the business during the pandemic. How has business gone for you guys?
Mandy Fry: In the very beginning of the shutdown we had to take a really hard look at our business and as a group we decided to focus on what we’re really good at. We pressed pause on all of our other brands, and we took a step back from most private label; not all. And we decided to really focus all of our attention on Z Supply, the brand itself, as it’s our true bread and butter and the strength of our company. By cutting out the noise I think we’ve been more efficient obviously, and we are better at what we’re creating.
Employees are more focused; they’re not as spread thin. And I will tell you, Tiffany, our business is better than it’s ever been before. By streamlining we positively affected the bottom line. Costs are down, sales are up. And I do not say this lightly as I know a lot of companies out there are struggling through this time, so I am grateful for how well our business is doing. But I have heard that other businesses are doing well in our industry which is great, and it’s really been interesting to see the types of brands that have had success over the last several months.
For us, I will tell you it’s a few reasons. One, we just simply have the right product for the right time for the right environment. We sell knits. We’re known for our casual fashion, super cozy fabrications as well as our Z loungewear. So, it’s right product, right time. I’d also say that we have healthy level of inventory. We didn’t panic and cancel back in March and April and we also didn’t buy too much.
I would also say that John and Greg, the founders and the former CFO Charlie Butler, absolutely prepared us for a rainy day. They really did prepare the company for something like this. And then Ann Fong joined us as CFO and COO just before Covid and she has been amazing. She’s helped me navigate through this time and she’s been unbelievable.
But lastly, I’d say just getting through this it’s been hard work of the team; staying all on the same page and moving together in sync. They’re all in 100% and when your team is in 100% it makes such a difference in what you can do.
Based on what happened during the pandemic, has that led to any strategy changes for you guys?
Mandy Fry: Yes, absolutely; I think for everyone. The decisions that I had to make were certainly the most challenging of my career but aside from dropping the other brands and private label, in March we had to look at non-people expenses throughout the company. And we decided to cut everything we possibly could from capital expenditures to marketing budgets, IT budgets, and we were actually really effective in financially restructuring the business in the first two weeks of shut down.
Then another one or two weeks went by and we saw that the shelter at home order was not going to be short-term, and was likely to last many months, we realized we have to make some very difficult people decisions. So, we executed a small layoff across several divisions in the company and that was gut wrenching and I’m sure most businesses would say the same. But the question was and remains, Tiffany, how do we make sure that we’re going to survive this and how do we make sure that we’re there for our employees. How do we come out stronger in the end and ultimately that is what is going to have to guide the decisions; the decisions I make and what management makes then and now.
Flash forward to today as many brands are experiencing, our direct to consumer business has had a huge uptick as many people are shopping online and we realize this will continue to be a larger part of our business. We’re collaborating with software development teams to layer in new ideas and new ways of shopping and it just might be my favorite part of my job. I don’t know how to code but I love brainstorming with software developers and creating new ideas and new ways for a consumer to shop, and then having developers see those ideas to life.
Unlike product development, you can have an idea at 8:00 a.m. and by 5:00 p.m. software developers can be done with your project. It’s this instant gratification. Not all the time, not every project’s like that, but that’s been really fun. And although we’re having a lot of fun with our e-com site and it’s growing, we continue with our one main brand value and that’s supporting our accounts first and foremost and doing all we can to protect them and their businesses.
I’d say one example is never going on sale. We never have and don’t have plans to do so in the future. Not even any secret sales.
Tell me about your BTB platform for retailers, called B2Z, and the virtual showroom the company created.
Mandy Fry: That’s a huge focus for us. We’ve had it since 2018, but we are investing more in this platform. We’ve hired additional software developers and are moving the company more and more into tech each day.
Our shoppable website for buyers allows them to go on and shop product that’s immediate, as well as future collections from the comfort of their own home, or their own store. It’s really fun to go into the back end and no matter what time of day to see people on the site shopping, adding to cart. I can also see when they’re on our virtual showroom which is something I’m really excited about.
We actually came up with this idea for Z Supply at the end of 2019 and pre-Covid, and we created this virtual showroom that lives within the B2Z platform. It’s amazing. You can go on and virtually see the line on models, listen to a voiceover explain each and every style. It’s up close, you see the fabrics, you almost feel like you can touch and feel them. And while you’re watching the virtual presentation you can add it to your cart and then click and your order is placed.
We had no idea when we were developing B2Z, let alone virtual showroom, how important it was going to be in 2020. It’s been a game changer especially during this time.
I was telling my team the other day: my dream is to offer this platform to other manufacturers in the future because I love it so much and I feel like so many people would flourish from being able to have this kind of platform for their businesses.
You’ve had such big jobs in your career and when you left Amuse you took some time off. I’m really curious about what that was like for you – what you learned about yourself, what you learned about the world?
Mandy Fry: Yes, that was an amazing and an important time in my life and taking time off to be a mom. I got to be a stay at home mom for a year and for those who are moms and know what that feels like, I wish every mom could hit the pause button when their kids are, you know, not just babies, and not even toddlers. When you can really dive in and spend that quality time – my kids were 7 and 9 and I’d never done that before. I actually got to pick my kids up from school and hear the day’s stories firsthand. It was a really amazing time.
It was scary. I had always been a working mom; the career woman. My name had always been attached to a brand. I was always on the go. My adrenaline was always rushing, I was always traveling, so to step away and slow down and switch gears to be a full time mom it was exciting but scary all at the same time. I wasn’t sure if I would like it. But I loved it. Some people thought I was crazy to walk away from a brand that I had practically birthed, but it wasn’t my child and my actual children needed a better me and it was time well spent focusing on them and my husband.
We did a lot. We actually traveled a lot during that time and to travel with no stress is a game changer. There was no one needing me back home, no thousand emails flooding my inbox. It was a huge break. I certainly got to learn a lot about myself and what inspires me, what makes me tick.
But I had this huge desire to go back into the industry and I joked about retiring but deep down I knew that there was another chapter for me. I wasn’t necessarily saying it because I was unsure of what that looked like and what that meant.
But within a few months of being off, I was already building brand decks and my husband, would say “What are you doing?” And I would say, “I miss creating and I miss leading teams.” And I knew I was headed back in to do something when I would take my kids to school and then all of a sudden, my days were filled with meetings and not going to brunches or lunches or workouts. I was calling up CEOs and meeting with different brand people in the industry. I was talking to factories overseas about development.
Also during that year I got to really know John and Greg and we spent a year just talking and meeting. We joke that thank goodness no one told me I was going to have to lead through Covid – I’m not sure I would have taken the job. But in all seriousness, I love building teams, I love creating, and I love leading and I reassured myself through being off that year that I was, and I love seeing positive results. It’s energizing and I love the adrenaline rush, and I’m addicted to it.
What advice would you give to any younger people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Mandy Fry: I’ll narrow it down to two things maybe on this call. First, I’m of the mindset that you have to work hard and put your time in. And I tell all of the younger employees and interns that. I mean real time, not half time, just real time, it’s true hard work. I learned that from my dad and my granddad and that has stuck with me my entire career.
My dad was a successful engineer at IBM, and he said, “No matter what technology does, nothing will compare in your lifetime to be able to put in hard work and effort and earn the respect of others around you.” And that’s really stuck with me. It takes years to develop the skillset that it takes to lead and run a profitable company. Yes, of course, there’s exceptions but in general, I think it takes true hard work, time, passion, loyalty with a big dose of humility to rise in this industry.
It takes years to understand the big picture. It takes communication and transparency. I think those who hold their cards too close sometimes they win but they don’t stay on top. I think you have to have humility and you have to be able to admit your weaknesses. And you have to be able to surround yourself with others who just might be better than you.
We have always been, as an organization, super transparent about our numbers which I appreciate. We have communicated openly with our employees sharing all the decisions that we make and the whys behind those decisions. I think that through transparency there’s two things that happen.
One, it empowers people with data to make decisions quickly for themselves, but the second thing is that it breeds this deeper trust and when you’re going through a crisis you need trust more than anything else. And the way we’ve approached trust within our company is through transparency.
And I guess I’ll end with the last bit. Being a leader means taking risks and being able to make quick decisions. I think feeling a sense of ownership is a big part of being a leader in that you must have passion for what you’re doing. Life’s too short not to and I think that’s one thing we could all agree on.