By Kym Conis, managing director, AMBA
Industry innovator and former FSEA Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient Tom Cullen recently passed away. Born in 1935, Cullen spent most of his youth in California and Nevada before enlisting in the United States Army in 1953 and serving for two years. After the birth of their third child, Cullen and his wife, Nancy, relocated the family to Burlingame, California, where Cullen purchased a small printing business. Over the next 40 years, he would turn that small operation – Apex Die Corporation – into one of the leading print finishers in the US. Cullen retired from Apex in 2005, leaving the business to his children. Cullen passed away peacefully at his home on March 12, 2020.
The following article was originally published in the 2006 February/March issue of Inside Finishing magazine. It is reprinted here in honor of Cullen’s life, work and dedication to an industry he helped pioneer.
From successful trade entrepreneur to one of the guiding lights that provided direction to an association in need, Tom Cullen was a pioneer in an industry that had yet to realize the true impact of its combined strength. Through his leadership and unrelenting courage to take that first step, he not only built one of the largest trade print finishing companies in the United States, Apex Die Corporation, but also was instrumental in the structure and development of the Foil Stamping and Embossing Association (the original name of the FSEA) during its formative years.
As a tribute to his dedication and significant contributions to the foil stamping and embossing industry, the FSEA proudly honors Thomas J. Cullen with the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award. As the first active FSEA member to receive this award, Tom Cullen is recognized for his efforts to educate, standardize and unify the foil stamping and embossing industry and for his efforts to promote industry awareness throughout the graphic arts community at large.
Taking a look back to the early years, Tom Cullen’s long career in the industry can be traced to 1964 when he purchased a one-man paper box operation on the San Francisco Peninsula in Burlingame, California. With a background in sales for a Seattle-based envelope manufacturer (and previous to that, a two-year term in the US Armed Forces), Cullen took that courageous first step and purchased Apex Die & Paper Box Co., Inc. for $1,000 down. As Cullen recalled, “I had an enormous urge to be in business for myself.”
Working out of a small rental space, Cullen learned the trade from the ground up. In those first years, the operation produced letterpress-printed folding cartons, as well as some diecutting, numbering and letterpress printing for the printing trade. A Kluge diecutter, a hand-fed Thompson (26 x 40″) diecutter, a C&P diecutter and a Miehle cylinder press comprised the company’s production operations, along with hand-gluing. During the early formation of Silicon Valley, there was a movement of ad agencies, designers and printers from San Francisco to the Peninsula. Recognizing a great opportunity, Cullen changed the name of the company to Apex Die Corporation, thus dropping the emphasis on boxes and adding embossing – and eventually foil stamping – to its services.
“The thing about growing, though, was I couldn’t run a press and sell at the same time,” Cullen explained. “But, with the part-time help of my two brothers and my wife, Nancy, I was able to find a lot of diecutting work from the printing industry. That’s when business really took off.” Approximately five years later, Apex moved into a 7,000 square foot space in San Carlos, California, where it gradually occupied (and eventually purchased) 35,000 square feet; and by the late ‘90s (just before the dot.com crash), employed some 135 employees.
“Working with those high-tech entrepreneurs led to some exciting times,” recalled Cullen. “We did a lot of prototyping and saw some unusual projects. In the early years of floppy discs, we diecut some of the original prototype cases for Memorex and Ampex – companies that then were barely on the map.” As Silicon Valley continued to grow, so too did the market for foil stamped and embossed materials – namely annual report covers and labels of various kinds. “We also did a monumental amount of diecutting index tabs, which was the way the high-tech companies published all their documentation,” Cullen explained.
At the height of its business, Apex did an enormous amount of sheet-fed wine labels and presentation folders. Among the company’s many first steps were its offerings in the large-format, automatic diecutting and foil stamping arenas. “In northern California, we were the first to offer large-format diecutting with the installation of a Bobst press,” stated Cullen, “and we were probably the first, and only, company for years in our area to offer large-format foil stamping, which we used to produce a lot of labels, greeting cards and direct mail.” In addition, Apex also was the first in its area to install automatic folding/gluing equipment for the production of presentation folders.
As much of the label market in California was predominantly wine-related, Apex was successful in capturing a substantial amount of the business with its large-format capabilities. “Many of the labels were being printed on half-size sheets; however, we specialized in large-format labels for giants such as Gallo and also other trade label printers that didn’t have the stamping and embossing expertise,” explained Cullen. “At one time, we produced over 700 million labels in one year.” Along the way, Apex Die formed several off-shoot business ventures, including the Short Run Label Company and VIP Stationery. “We sold the Short Run Label Company to our partner when it outgrew our space within Apex and used the funds to start VIP stationery, which we later sold,” he said.
However, like (and in some ways unlike) much of the country nationwide, Apex experienced some tough times in the late ‘90s and into the 21st century. Within a four-year period, events such as the crash of the dot.com companies (which greatly affected industry on the Pacific coast), 9/11 and the gradual exodus of much of the company’s wine label business left Apex Die with some difficult challenges.
“Our label business decreased dramatically due to several reasons: overseas competition, the advancement of the rotary market and a struggling economy that forced many companies, such as Gallo’s printing operation, to bring finishing processes in-house,” Cullen explained. “That’s the danger of a trade business. You have to remain diversified to absorb the ebbs and tides.” And Cullen attributes much of the company’s continued success to his three sons (Kevin, Chris and Ted) who, according to Cullen, “have done an excellent job of bringing the company around to its present state of stability and renewed growth.”
Cullen’s participation and firm commitment to association involvement can be traced back to his 25-year tenure with the Master Printers of America and to his involvement with PINC (Printing Industries of Northern California), where he became the first president of the board from an ‘open shop.’ San Francisco was a very unionized area, and Apex continuously felt pressure to join the union – a pressure to which Cullen refused to succumb. “I felt strongly that a superior employee should get paid as such and a mediocre employee, if I had the mind to keep one around, should likewise be compensated,” stated Cullen.
The union provided little incentive to produce highly skilled operators because everyone was paid the same. Cullen further explained, “Master Printers of America had a wonderful program that taught shops how to run an open shop and how to attract and keep skilled employees by treating and paying them well.” Apex also was among the first to participate in the association’s Craftsmanship certification program.
However, Cullen’s involvement with trade associations did not end there, as he was approached late in 1993 to accept the position of chairman of the newly formed Foil Stamping and Embossing Association (launched in March of 1992). Already in partial retirement at the time, Cullen agreed to lead the association in its restructure and development – a challenge he would undertake with the assistance of a dedicated board of industry heavy hitters from companies large and small.
Working in tandem with Cullen during the association’s formative years were FSEA Secretary/Treasurer Bob Gallagher, Ace Inc.; Michael Larkin, Larkin Industries; John Tinnon, Graphic Converting; David Liess, Dynamic Graphic Finishing; Jim Snyder, C&J Graphics; Patrick Derickson, Scarab Inc.; and associate members Hank Brandtjen, Brandtjen and Kluge, and Bill Seymour with The Bobst Group (Early on, Mark Baugh, D.E. Baugh Co., Inc., and Mel Wellstead, Rocky Mountain Embossing, replaced Snyder and Larson, who resigned from the board due to pressing issues within their respective businesses).
Together, this board of directors, under the helm of Cullen, set out to accomplish an enormous task: to bring the association from the edge of obscurity to the forefront of its industry; to unite its members and the industry at large through education and standardization; to create true value for association members; and to heighten industry awareness and thereby increase growth.
The first order of business was to raise the funds necessary to give the FSEA financial breathing room and to give the association the means with which to carry out its mission. “In those early years, companies such as Bobst, Kluge, Astor Universal, Independent Machinery and Universal Engraving should be noted for their initial generosity that made everything else possible,” stated Cullen. “And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we all benefited from the productive and aggressive work of Mary Fuller (former FSEA Director), without whom all of our work may not have been completed.”
By mid 1994, the association had gained momentum and several committees were formed. Under the guidance of these first committees (Education, Industry Standards, Industry Awareness and Membership), several projects evolved that not only impacted the early years of the association and its membership but also helped to dictate the future course of the industry.
Over the course of Cullen’s two-year term as FSEA chairman, many notable projects and events came to light. In the category of education, a Fall Seminar Series was launched in 1994 in three major cities throughout the US. Surveys were devised and distributed in an effort to collect viable production information by which members could compare their current operations. And in 1995, the inaugural FSEA National Convention was held in Chicago, Illinois.
The Industry Standards committee worked on such projects as a comprehensive glossary of terminology (1994) and the Pantone Foil Selector Guide (1995), which was launched in an effort to develop an industry color standard for the selection, specification and communication of foils for the graphic arts industry. According to the committee chairman of the project, Kevin Cullen with Apex Die, this was a historic agreement for the foil stamping and embossing industry in that it would make the ordering process easier for foil stampers and embossers. Although the project never truly reached its full potential, it did mark the first attempt by the foil stamping and embossing industry to increase industry awareness by reaching the people who would specify the foil.
Industry awareness continued in 1994 with the undertaking of the largest FSEA project to date – A Different Breed: The Designer’s Guide to Foil Stamping and Embossing. Through the efforts and contributions of many industry suppliers (especially Brandtjen and Kluge, which donated the creative services for the project), the educational resource was produced live on the show floor at Print ’97 – gaining great visibility for the association and the industry as a whole. Other industry landmarks produced under the helm of Cullen included a formal membership directory, the inception of the Gold Leaf Awards Competition and the introduction of the association’s magazine, InsideFinishing, in 1995.
In February of 1996, Cullen passed the gavel to Bob Gallagher, who became the new FSEA chairman of the board. In a parting memo to the board, Cullen wrote:
As I near the end of my term, I take special pride in assembling a cohesive and committed board, even though it took some trial and error to arrive at the present makeup. I also take special pride in assuring the association of a strong and stable succession of officers for the next few years. Finally, I take pride in knowing that we worked together to pump new life into an association that was in trouble and, in two years, we’ve molded the FSEA into a valuable industry asset.
Outside of the industry, Cullen has written numerous articles for printing trade magazines (primarily in the west), for motorcycle magazines and for motor home publications. His keen sense of humor in his writing style has won Cullen five awards from the Family Motor Coach Association for newsletters he published over the years. He also served on the Board of the North American Trials Council, a motorcycle competition organization. “My wife, Nancy, and I were the promoters of one of the first world Championship Trials competitions in the US, with entrants from 11 nations,” recalled Cullen. “I was the number three nationally ranked senior rider in the sport for three years.”
Today, Tom and Nancy Cullen enjoy the RV lifestyle in their 40-foot Prevost motor home for several months out of each year. For the past six and a half years, they have traveled full-time to every state in the US (except Hawaii and Alaska), to nearly all Canadian Provinces, and to three states in Mexico. The couple will continue to travel until, as Cullen chuckled, “they take away my driver’s license!”
A man of many talents, Tom Cullen remains on the board of Apex Die Corporation but leaves the running of the business in the capable hands of the second generation… a generation he taught very well. His strong leadership abilities and overall enthusiasm are among but a few of the many traits that have earned him a reputation of the highest regard among industry peers.
As he concluded in his parting memo to the FSEA board of directors, “I will now be happy to watch your continued progress from the sidelines. Keep doing what you do so well.”