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Duke W. Okes, Class of 1976, Outstanding Alumni Award Winner for 2010

duke oaks 2010From $2.40 an hour to $65 an hour, Northeast State Community College alumnus Duke Okes seized the opportunities of education to become a titan in his field.

When Okes enrolled at a technical institution known as Tri-Cities State Tech in 1974, the term “Knowledge Architect” may not have been around. Today, this Northeast State graduate may have invented the term translating his education and experience into a lifetime role as an entrepreneur, author, and the College’s Outstanding Alumnus for 2010.

“I think I am taking knowledge out there and manipulating it in a way that people can understand,” said Okes, founder and knowledge architect of the Blountville-based APLOMET consulting firm. Okes received the Outstanding Alumni Award recognizing his success in industry and the community. He has consulted companies both large and small in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom.

Okes was earning $2.40 per hour in 1974 when he enrolled at Northeast State. His 1976 associate degrees in electronics and mechanical engineering technology propelled him to a new job and more than doubled his paycheck with the TRW company in Rogersville. After 9 years with TRW as a quality technician and later quality engineer, Okes formed his consulting company APLOMET in 1985 where he commanded $65 per hour from companies in need of his knowledge services.

An acronym for Applied Logical Methods, APLOMET provides quality systems and organizational management consultation to Fortune 500 companies, family-owned businesses, nonprofits, and start-up firms. Okes ranks as one of the most sought-after experts in the global manufacturing industry.

Okes first came to Northeast State as a displaced worker. He heard about the school, at the time called Tri-Cities State Tech, and its electronics technology program.

“I was laid off from a job as an inspector at a manufacturing company and had the G.I. Bill to use,” said Okes. “Northeast State had the electronics program and a mechanical program and I was able to transfer some credits in from another college.”

Okes pursued a dual program of study in electronics and mechanical engineering technology graduating in 1976. One of his favorite instructors was mathematics professor Mary Ella Poteat who he credits with piquing his interest in statistics.

“Anyone who can make statistics seem interesting is phenomenal,” said Okes with a laugh. “It was the perfect analysis to use when I moved into my first job – I got instant feedback and realized, wow this stuff works!”

He also spoke fondly of Northeast State mechanical technology instructor Clarence Hughes as a “superb professional” as well as electrical technology instructor Roy Powers. After graduating, Okes joined automotive supply manufacturer TRW at the company’s Rogersville site. He credits his preparation at Northeast State and the professionalism of TRW as two elements that would pave the way to his future success.

“I’ve worked with more than 150 companies since, and it is difficult to find one comparable to TRW,” said Okes. “It was almost like being in a professional society of experts. They went out and hired good people and let them do what they did best.”

Okes’ work sent him around the world including an international project in Japan where he was exposed to that culture’s attention to detail and quality.

“They treated us like gurus,” recalled Okes. “We were there to help them learn and solve problems.”

Okes went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s degree in adult education from Tusculum College. He also graduated from the University of Kentucky’s lean manufacturing certificate program. He has been elected Fellow of the American Society for Quality, and is certified by ASQ as a quality manager, quality engineer, and quality auditor.

A new national emphasis on manufacturing quality arose in the early 1980s putting Okes’ knowledge in high demand. APLOMET subsequently heard its market knocking on the door.

“I found that I am almost always able to take and simplify something to communicate it in a simple, clear way,” said Okes. “The quality demand was being pushed on companies by their customers, and I had the ability to communicate quality standards in a non-complex way.”

He first consulted on statistical process control and later moved on to helping manufacturers seeking ISO 9000 certification.  APLOMET projects were busy over the next 10 years raising standards for companies, including many clients in the Tri-Cities region.

“The standard gave companies the notion if you are going to run your business effectively here are things you must do,” he said. “I got to learn about their products and processes and meet a lot of nice people and professional folks.”

When a Tri-Cities company visited Northeast State’s Institute for Business and Industry Services requesting a course to teach root cause analysis, the institute turned to Okes. He developed a three-day course on technical root cause analysis – synonymous with troubleshooting of any organizational management decision. The course clicked immediately with the company and the students. Okes has since taught 12 courses over the past 10 years for Northeast State. After years of teaching a subject he knew and refining it for each class, Okes wrote the book “Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action” that is now used in quality training courses throughout the country.

Work keeps Okes traveling. These trips are more pleasant now since he’s usually accompanied by his wife Nancy, herself a 1985 Northeast State alumna who retired from Eastman Chemical Company.

Okes’ contributions to Northeast State began in the classroom where he taught training seminars in quality management, auditing, quality improvement associate certifications, and he also served as a subject matter expert for ASQ’s Certified Quality Manager section refresher course materials and self-directed learning materials. A consistent friend and donor to the Northeast State Foundation, his work with local companies has kept them viable in turbulent economic times past and present.

“Every company needs to focus on organizational quality and how that impacts their overall performance,” he said. “It is organizational quality that is often how you measure how good a company really is.”

Okes was the featured speaker for the first Alumni Lecture Series: Paths to Success in 2010. Okes spoke of “The Perfect Economic Stimulus” as a college degree coupled with personal initiative that gives students the ability to create career opportunities with marketable skills. A DVD of his presentation is on reserve at the Wayne G. Basler Library. Copies of his books are also available for check-out.

After the lecture, Okes spent the day visiting with students in classes around campus. His presentation delved into his knowledge of quality manufacturing and how efficiency can revitalize an entire national economy. Okes charted his own path to success from Northeast State to an entrepreneur working around the globe.

In 2011, Duke and Nancy Okes endowed a scholarship for Northeast State students majoring in chemistry, electrical, electromechanical, management, mathematics, mechanical, or small business management. The Duke and Nancy Okes Endowed Scholarship aids students pursuing career fields that have defined Duke and Nancy's paths to success.