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Access Control VS Skeleton Keys – 30-1 Years in AI (not that sort)

Louise Frost, Search Manager at Door Controls Direct, a trusted provider of comprehensive door control solutions, sits down to talk about all things safety and security with their MD, Gary Hewitt.

This may be a little premature.

2025 will see Gary having been in the architectural ironmongery industry for 30 years. But why wait to hear his insights and perspective on a sector that’s becoming more dynamic and contentious with each passing month?

Exactly. There’s no time like the present. So, 30-1 years it is.

Gary and I have known each other since 2010. But what’s happened to the safety and security landscape in those 14 years? And where is the company now compared to the times of Oasis VS Blur, when we were gripped by Terry Venables and football fever for Euro ’96?

Also, what’s next?

With Door Controls Direct gaining a head of steam in recent years, what does our MD feel is the new kid on the AI block, the shiny object that’s pulling us into the next era and iteration of door hardware, physical security, and passive fire protection?

You don’t have long to wait to find out. Just keep reading…

L: Tell me about your journey in our industry to date.

It was 1995, I’d just got married and moved from a builder’s merchant to work on the trade counter of an architectural ironmongers in Yeovil. These are the days when brown smocks dangled on cloakroom pegs and museum-worthy joinery tools graced the shop.

There is such a proud heritage and history with our company, and our industry, but so much changes. The trade counter is the best place to learn. Getting hands on. Earn your stripes. Start building your own bank of knowledge. Do your duty and serve your time.

Four years and a Guild diploma later I was drawn upstairs to the mystique surrounding the specification department. A1 plans churning out of the big printer, calls and faxes with architects. The design and structure of buildings yet to be built, the freedom to create product specifications, seeing the projects come to life before your eyes – it was a whole new world of architectural ironmongery for me.

Even then, it was very much knowledge led. There were core manufacturers who pushed training and development, and I was naturally interacting with locksmiths when creating master key systems. Being somewhat of an old timer now, I feel the amount of time, effort, and care that went into creating bespoke systems alongside the client and architect, has been lost over the years.

With my diploma (silver award winner), and a sensible understanding of counter sales and specification, I found a growing interest in management. Through various changes of hands, I had the opportunity to move through the company, becoming Managing Director in 2017.

The traditional AI route. Slow, considered progression. That’s how I, and so many of my peers, started out.  However, there is a growing frustration with new starters with the pace of the long-established route. The challenge for me is how to address that, to speed things up.

Knowledge is the key in our industry. It’s fundamental. Fundamental to everything we do in our industry, and everything we do at Door Controls Direct.

L: What are the challenges now compared to what they used to be?

The focus used to be security. With the master key systems, door hardware, and locking systems. It was keeping premises and spaces secure, managing access. Now it is safety. First, second, and third priority. This is what is being asked of us. People depend on us to keep them safe and secure. We haven’t lost sight of security, not by any means, but it’s now layered with and taken over by providing knowledge and solutions for safety as well.

L: You’re leading a business through a fractious time – recession, global pandemic, cost of living crisis – what keeps you up at night?

With a micro focus, I’d say the team. Team development, team retention, team safety. Our staff are hungry for progression and development, and we want to feed that, to fuel it. If they’re not passionate and keen to move forward, to learn, then we don’t stand a chance of achieving our goals and objectives. Layer this with ensuring their wellbeing, enriching their working environment, and a focus on retaining all of those that walk through our doors, in whatever department.

Outside of the company, there are a few concerns on my radar. The fragility of the supply chain is something we’re constantly aware of, and it’s been this way for a few years now. A new threat that’s emerged is the spread of misinformation through the use and integration of AI into many people’s daily workflow. We are depended upon to provide knowledge to our customers so they can better serve the public. With others relying on generative artificial intelligence to create content, I fear there is an imminent wave of misinformation in our industry that could impact the safety of people and the security of premises.

Other top line items for me include the continued cost-cutting from government, and business and building owners when it comes to safety and security products, and having robust, clear regulations in place. Our team can provide the solutions to meet standards and regulations, educate customers, but only if these measures are in place to begin with.

L: How are you setting the company apart in the industry?

Digital first. These aren’t buzz words for us. We’re taking a digital-first approach to growth. By investing in a Marketing Director, we have brought new knowledge into the business, upskilling the team. Bringing digital marketing, brand, and SEO in-house, harnessing our reputation, and investing in high level marketing we are embracing a seemingly contrasting modern approach to traditional architectural ironmongery.

It has taken a lot of management and business retraining to understand the importance of this, but we wanted to and have taken ourselves out of the traditional AI business model. Our differentiator from larger ecommerce hardware suppliers is our knowledge. We have found it isn’t only about product portfolio and customer base, but how we continue to grow, nurture, and invest in a knowledgeable team.

L: What’s the focus for the future?

Knowledge has been mentioned a lot, but it isn’t the be all and end all. We are also continuing to build on our dependable brand that was established over 100 years ago.

Alongside brand is our goal of being a digital-first market leader in architectural ironmongery and door control solutions and how we deliver and grow this.

Government figures from 2023 show a 5.1% YOY increase of UK construction firm insolvency. Building on solid foundations of long term relationships with customers, suppliers, and most importantly – our staff – we are doing what we can to ensure we don’t become another statistic. Door Controls Direct are and will remain a dependable source of door control solutions.

L: What’s the best advice you’ve received or would pass on to someone?

Find part of your job that you really enjoy and do more of it.

Find a team that you like spending time with.

Find your direction and stay focused.

And don’t take work home with you.

Past, present, and predictions. Thank you to Gary for taking the time to talk through his time to date in the industry, his thoughts on the current landscape, and where he’s leading the team at Door Controls Direct as we look ahead.

A final word from Gary: The whole industry is jostling for position, trying to find an identity. At Door Controls Direct we’re cementing our position whilst remaining adaptable. So many companies want to supply everything to everyone but that can’t continue, and it’s not good business. We’ve learnt this the hard way. It can’t be both access control and skeleton keys.