It is always disconcerting when you think you know what a company is doing, look away for a while and then go back to discover that it has changed entirely. We know that the time is long past when the name Dorma was only associated with door closers, but it is still an eye-opener to visit its new headquarters in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Designed by BBR Architects, the building is a showcase for Dorma's products and, yes, there is a wide range of methods of opening and closing doors, of automatic openers and sliders, and of disabled access buttons to the lavatories.
Unsurprisingly, there are also some pretty whizzy glass partition systems.
But what is more surprising is that when you go into the lavatories, you discover a colourful cubicle system for WCs and for showers that also belongs to Dorma. And isn't there something familiar about the fittings on the glazed cladding and on the staircases?
Yes, indeed, the company has adapted some of its internal fittings to support glazed walls and balustrades.
Add to this a conference room that can be divided up by a partitioning system that folds away neatly in a cupboard, and you find there is scarcely a space in the building where you can avoid the company's products, or a direction in which you can look without seeing one. Even the panic hardware on the fireexit doors is a new product.
In terms of consistency of design language, this makes the building a bit of a muddle since it seems that no two doors, no two glazed partitions, are the same. But it functions perfectly well as an office, and the slightly frenetic nature of the specification is a necessary evil for a building that works like a three-dimensional catalogue.
What is more interesting is how a company becomes so diverse, and how it deals with it once it happens. In Dorma's case, diversification has been led by the development of the technology, and in some cases by acquisitions. In specialist applications, it is working with partners who understand the new markets it is entering.
This development - essentially applying known technology in new markets - is an interesting contrast to a company like Titon.
Best known for trickle vents, Titon is now branching out into fields such as extract fans.
It is embracing entirely different technology while sticking to the same function: ways of ventilating buildings. This is an intelligent response to an uncertain world, where the potential conflicts between requirements for insulation and for ventilation have not been resolved yet to anybody's satisfaction. Titon is determined to continue bringing to buildings the expertise and understanding that it has acquired, even if it has to be in entirely different ways. At the same time, of course, the company is continuing to develop and improve its core products.
In the same way, Dorma is taking very seriously the requirements of provision for the disabled, developing door closers that it believes can both satisfy the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act and act as fi re doors. But in addition to this closely worked drilling down into the technology, it is widening its approach.
We hear a lot about the need for evolution in the way that buildings are designed and built. This will, without doubt, lead to a requirement for very different building products. There will also be some well-loved favourites that continue to be used for a long time (think about the best bricks, about classic furniture, about the simplest and cleverest plumbing details). But much of what we now know is likely to disappear.
Companies that seek to expand beyond their conventional fields of expertise are taking a risk. They need to understand the market's requirements, to assess their new competitors, and to be sure that they can perform to as high a level in terms of production and service as they do with their existing range. None of this should be entered lightly. The dangers of a change in direction and emphasis are not to be underestimated. There is probably only one strategy that is more dangerous. And that is not to change at all.