By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“We are an engineering company that was literally designed by engineers to be an efficient and focused environment,” Ben Nibali says in describing APTUS DesignWorks, Inc. “We exist to facilitate the rapid execution of great ideas”
Noting that “Aptus” is a Latin word that means appropriate or fitting, the company’s Founder says the name serves as a constant reminder to the designers here that it is our job to find the ‘appropriate’ solution to the client’s challenge.”
The small firm, founded eight years ago, just celebrated its first million dollar revenue year in 2014. For Nibali, the milestone is validation of the business plan and value system he embraced in founding the firm.
“We are your in-house engineering and design shop, but outsourced,” the President of APTUS says. “Our original vision is still what we are doing though the how has changed.”
We interviewed the Maryland native and Clemson University graduate at APTUS’s significantly renovated building on Aluminum Avenue in Alcoa. The 1940s building formerly housed a coal distribution business and a bait and tackle shop.
“We gutted and re-designed it for what we do,” Nibali explained. As we toured the compact space, we could see how the building reflects the values that the Founder clearly embraces.
Low overhead, highly skilled engineers, flexibility, and a commitment to excellent service are hallmarks of APTUS.
“We must hire very flexible people.” Nibali says, noting that everyone on staff is a “direct producer,” with no purely administrative or support roles present. One of the staff engineers even doubles as a welder when needed.
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 10 years and rose to a supervisory position.
“I got to learn in a manufacturing environment that is truly world class,” Nibali says. “Even among Tier 1 manufacturers, DENSO is truly a standout.”
The lessons he learned at DENSO and as a Product Engineering Manager at a start-up for 18 months after leaving DENSO clearly had a lasting impression on him.
Nibali says the time with the start-up and the exposure to the world of small business “was fascinating, and whetted my appetite” for entrepreneurship. “I was exposed to all facets of the business . . . sales, accounting, marketing, design and production I also saw some things that I would do differently from a management perspective.”
So, when he founded APTUS, initially working from his home and months later in a 500 square foot office in the Five Points area of Maryville, Nibali did so with some key principles and beliefs.
“When I was running in-house engineering departments I found it very difficult to find effective outsourced engineering,” he says. “The options usually fell into one of two categories – small companies or individuals with limited resources and capabilities, or large ones with considerable overhead and hourly rates to match. Another key challenge was finding a firm that would truly ‘own the project’ and makes things happen, not just make drawings.”
Nibali takes pride in the fact that APTUS is local, flexible, nimble and cost-effective. Five of its six engineers have Bachelor’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering and the sixth is an Industrial Designer with 3D graphics expertise. One staff member is a certified Tennessee P.E.
APTUS has its own shop adjoining the engineering office, and the team not only does design work but also makes prototypes and even completes machine assembly and testing when needed.
The company’s systems are designed to provide maximum progress per calendar time.
“We can design a part, get injection-molding dies made, and have 50 pieces in your hand all in two weeks,” Nibali says.
NEXT: The opportunities and APTUS’ role in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.