2013 Hall of Fame : Frank Defino Sr. - Printing's Heavy Hitter
Sometimes, we find ourselves trading one dream for another. It's not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it mean you are settling for something less.
In the case of Frank Defino Sr., when life gave him fastballs, he hit them to the opposite field.
Defino longed to play professional baseball. He shuttled around the left side of the infield, eventually settling on third base. At 5-6, Frank Defino lacked size, but he watched plenty of diminutive superstars—including Yankee greats Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra—making good on the diamond. Heck, Defino used to watch Dim Dom Dallesandro, the 5-6 Cubbies left fielder, while he sat in the bleacher seats, chowing down on bologna sandwiches. And Dom wasn't exactly Ernie Banks.
Defino took his shot at the big leagues, getting looks from the "Go-Go" White Sox and Atlanta Crackers, and continued to play semipro ball after graduating from high school while working three jobs to make ends meet. Baseball was his true love.
"In 1956 my dad asked me why I kept playing ball after I graduated from high school," Defino recalls. "It was my hobby, my pastime, my passion. I asked him how much he makes a year at his job. He took three buses to work and worked 10 to 12 hours a day, and he said he made $5,000 a year. I told him that players make $7,000 when they first come up into the major league."
Defino soon found something he loved more than baseball...a girl he called Lilly. She would change his life, as would a newspaper ad in January of 1963 that offered a lithographic plate shop that was for sale. A bum knee might have kept Defino in the bleachers, but the girl and the newspaper ad paved his destiny—a road that also led to the 2013 Printing Impressions/RIT Printing Industry Hall of Fame induction class.
"At the time, I had a wife, two kids, worked the third shift at Rand McNally and did two other jobs during the day, trying to pay for a home," Defino says. "I saw the for sale ad for the plate shop, which was in a sub-basement in Chicago. I ended up purchasing it with a down payment of $575 and asked a friend, Mike Vitallo, to be my partner."
A True Entrepreneur
Working tirelessly at three jobs, Frank Defino had longed to be his own boss. He learned the previous owner had passed away after not being in business very long, and had started the company in order to provide work for his son. In fact, the company's name of Tu-kaiz Studio played off "two Ks," in this case, Kirchner and Kirchner.
Defino would co-opt the elder Kirchner's goal and build Tukaiz into a Midwestern prepress and printing powerhouse. "I wanted to keep the name and the dream alive," he says. "Today, I have my sons—Frank Jr., John and Dan—son-in-law Christopher and daughter Maryann as my partners."
Print and graphics have long been an influence in Frank Defino's Sr.'s life. He started out by doing typesetting in high school and graduated, both figuratively and literally, to letterpress shop Monarch Printing in Chicago. His first day there was the evening of high school graduation. After Monarch, Defino landed at Alco & Gravure, then at Segerdahl Halford, which was his first lithography job. He has vivid memories of working for Joe Halford and Gil Segerdahl, and recalls the somber day when he arrived at work to learn that Halford had passed away.
At Rand McNally, he worked the step-and-repeat machine and would have to pick up many 30x40 chases each day, weighing upwards of 100 pounds because they were glass negatives. "One day, I said to myself, 'I won't be doing this when I'm older,' " he recalls.
Once Defino sat in the captain's chair at Tukaiz, he developed a taste for cutting-edge technology. He took to doing lithographic plates and films for the trade in the 1960s. In the early '70s, he desperately wanted to purchase an electronic scanner, but had to wait until 1978. "We didn't have the bucks to do it, and Schawk ended up getting the first one," he notes.
As a trade shop, Tukaiz quickly latched on to cutting-edge technology for scans, retouching, film assembly and digital printing. He was able to jump on with the Crosfield Studio system, and was one of the first to purchase computer Light Speed software and a Quantel Paintbox. The Paintbox evolved from its use by the motion picture industry to litho applications such as performing cloning or retouching in real-time.
But it was his foray into digital printing, acquiring good friend Benny Landa's Indigo E-Print 1000—recognized by many as the world's first digital offset color printing press—that catapulted Defino and Tukaiz into rarefied air. "We were the first company in the Midwest and just the second one in the country to put in two digital presses," he says.
Not Afraid to Be on the Bleeding Edge
"I love technology," he admits. "If I think a development will have a bearing on the industry, I want to check into it. That's what an entrepreneur likes to do. But it can also present a lot of risk. Being someone who is ready to jump into something new, ready to be on the bleeding edge and sometimes disregard the risks...that may be the best entrepreneurial value I bring to the company."
It would be tough to find a bigger fan of Benny Landa outside of Defino, who always appreciated the lengths Landa went to trying to improve upon his equipment while still in the development or testing phases. Likewise, Landa has great admiration for the printer who bought into his digital printing concept on day one.
"Frank Defino is a true pioneer," Landa says. "...not only because he was one of my first Indigo customers 19 years ago, but because Frank has been at the forefront of the digital printing revolution ever since. He and his super-creative team at Tukaiz were at the cutting edge of personalized printing and were the very first to produce many of the individually-targeted, digitally printed products that have become commonplace today.
"I recently visited Tukaiz and was surprised, though I shouldn't have been, to find that nothing has changed, by which I mean of course that everything has changed," Landa adds. "Frank is still the first to try the newest thing—today Scodix, tomorrow...who knows? But Frank Defino's pioneering legacy goes far beyond technology. Tukaiz itself is a testament to Frank's avant-garde management philosophy: people first, second and third. That's why employees at Tukaiz talk about themselves belonging to the Tukaiz family. As do I. And what a privilege."
Barbara Pellow, group director for InfoTrends, adds that true visionaries are few and far between, and notes that Defino exemplifies a person with phenomenal market insight and vision. "His entire career has been one of always being the person with the big idea that would transform his business," she notes. "Whether it was being the first company to get into digital color, adding large-format, providing cross-media and mobile apps or blending in video, Frank was always ahead of the curve. Clearly, he has been a driving force in making Tukaiz into one of the leading marketing services companies in our industry."
Tukaiz implemented a multimedia division and began adding six-color UV in-line commercial sheetfed presses from Heidelberg in the mid-to-late '90s. After the turn of the millennium, the company began populating its floor with wide-format digital flatbed and rollfed devices for generating point-of-sale and point-of-purchase printing. In recent years, Tukaiz developed its own proprietary Web-to-print software, called Backstage, and now employs a crew of 30 solely for the purpose of database management and software development.
Maintaining competitiveness has presented a formidable challenge for Defino, as many of his contemporaries cut prices, unwittingly commoditized their offerings and faded without a true value proposition.
Defino has kept busy on the association front, garnering affiliations with a host of organizations past and present, including the Printing Industry of Illinois, the Chicago Print Production Club, Litho Club of Illinois, Digital Indigo Customer Exchange (DICE), Digital Solutions Cooperative (Dscoop), Print on Demand Initiative (PODi), Direct Marketing Association (DMA), International Prepress Association (IPA) and the IDEAlliance.
Aside from spending time with his children and grandchildren, Defino still enjoys a round of golf. He was honored recently as the Sportsman of the Year by the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame for his support and philanthropy.
Sadly, Lilly Defino wasn't around to share in the moment. She passed away three years ago after having bravely, and valiantly, battled cancer.
"She was my best friend and soul mate," he says. "She showed me what courage is all about. And we had a great 50-year run." PI