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July 19, 2023 | Tom Ballard

APTUS DesignWorks doubles in size as focus remains consistent

The APTUS Way is the thoughtful combination of skilled engineers and designers, effective tools, and efficient project management that delivers maximum effectiveness for its clients.

It had been about eight years since we last visited Ben Nibali and the team at APTUS DesignWorks Inc. in Alcoa, and what we can say about the intervening years is that the company has been very consistent in its focus while growing incrementally.

“The business has not fundamentally changed,” the Founder and President told us. “We’ve stayed very consistent in our mission and how we have operated,” even as it doubled in size with what is now a total of 11 employees.

Nibali arrived in Maryville in January 1996, a fresh college graduate joining an in-house machine design group at DENSO Manufacturing Tennessee Inc. He remained with the company for just over a decade, rising to a supervisory position, before spending 18 months as Product Engineering Manager at a small local business, then launching APTUS DesignWorks in July 2007, initially out of his home.

“We work with clients the same way we always have,” he says. “We’re always striving to be very accessible, cost-effective, and flexible to meet them where they are.”

APTUS DesignWorks provides a “soup to nuts” approach involving everything from scalable design to engineering and implementation services which Nibali characterizes as “walking all the way to the end with our customers. I did not really know how rare execution was within companies that provide design as a service. We walk with people much farther than they expect. We provide them with the tools, manpower, and expertise needed to turn a great idea into a  functional product ready to ship.”

That philosophy is embraced in The APTUS Way, a term Nibali uses to describe the company’s approach to every project. It is the thoughtful combination of skilled engineers and designers, effective tools, and efficient project management that delivers maximum effectiveness for APTUS DesignWorks’ clients and a flywheel for continued success for everyone.

Add to that something Nibali believes is a particular differentiator for the company – the longevity of its employee base. “We have almost no turnover,” he says proudly, explaining that it averages less than one percent annualized. “As a predictor of the effectiveness of a design group, I believe that total time-on-team is an even more powerful metric than total years of technical experience.”

What’s the secret sauce that defies the high level of turnover that other companies experience?

“It’s not because we are paying at the top of the market,” Nibali says. “It is because we provide the right quality of work life for our employees. We have created a place where people want to work.”

To further the education and skillset development of his employees, Nibali launched an internal training course in 2022 that they jokingly called APTUS University. This offsite lecture series featured seven one-hour sessions with three lessons each on topics like The APTUS Way, communication, cognitive biases, and The Creative Process.

There’s another dimension to the company’s focus on execution that adds “a magical thing for our engineers to experience” – making their designs become a reality in the company’s shop, says Kris Hall, Vice President of Operations, who joined APTUS DesignWorks [in 2009] as its third employee.

About two years ago, the company initiated a new offering named Launchpad that Nibali describes as a “product launch as a service.” Hall explains that it is an extension of the design and engineering process, and the company has engaged in four Launchpad projects in the past two years.

This service includes part sourcing, inventory management, assembly, and quality control – all under the watchful eye of the original designer or engineer. “In the end, the customer inherits a mature and properly documented manufacturing process, along with initial sellable inventory,” Nibali says.

APTUS DesignWorks is located on Aluminum Avenue in Alcoa. The 1940s building formerly housed a coal distribution business and a bait and tackle shop. Today, the company has reached capacity and will be expanding the building to accommodate its slow but steady and carefully measured growth.

Nibali says he’s not interested in growing exponentially but rather growing in terms of helping his customers with their needs. That view comes in spite of the fact that he acknowledges that APTUS DesignWorks does not know of any similar competitors within several hundred miles of Alcoa.

His corporate management philosophy is best embraced in the Latin term “repudiare avaritium.” It’s the avoidance of greed.

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