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Standards bearer

By Chris Atchison | January 16, 2013
Standards bearer
Ash Sahi

In terms of brand recognition, the three-letter CSA certification mark is as familiar to Canadians as Coca-Cola’s signature swirled letters or Apple’s iconic minimalist logo.

Indeed, the certification mark of CSA Group is emblazoned on everything from hockey helmets to power generators, consumer electronics, plumbing fixtures and even solar panels. Still, few Canadians have a full understanding of what the CSA Group does; let alone its importance to their country’s economy.

In essence, Ash Sahi, the CSA Group’s President and CEO, and the roughly 1,700 employees develop the standards for a myriad products – and even services and workplace environments such as factories and hospitals. CSA Group also tests and certifies products and affords its mark to those that meet the applicable standard for safety and performance. The organization works quietly each day to help Canadian economic productivity and competitiveness remain at world-class levels by ensuring manufacturers provide safe products to the marketplace. “When you produce a common set of standards, companies can produce the same product and have the same information base, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Sahi explains.

But in the past decade, the CSA Group has reinvented its model and taken its show on the road, acquiring companies overseas and bringing its high standards in 54 technology areas to diverse markets stretching from Germany to India. “The original mandate for CSA was to provide safety for Canadians,” Sahi, the former DuPont Liquid Packaging Systems CEO, explains, “but now that we’re global we’re doing the exact same thing in every country we operate in by offering a local service for products destined for the North American and global marketplace.” CSA Group now boasts 7,500 members from a wide range of stakeholder groups (consumer advocacy organizations, industry representatives, government officials and the educators), which elect its board and contribute to its balanced-matrix approach to standards development. Every standards committee is comprised equally of members from each of those stakeholder groups with an equal voice and one vote.

The high focus on quality can also be frustrating for the CSA Group’s clients. The reason: once a standard for a product or service is published, every product that falls under the standard area is then tested by CSA Group personnel who will deny certification if it fails to meet their rigorous requirements or that of another recognized standards development organization. “For manufacturers, it’s important that they can get their products tested and certified as quickly as possible in order to get them to market before their competitors,” Sahi stresses. “Time to market is critical. We work diligently to accommodate our clients’ needs, which is why we continue to establish offices globally to cut down on shipping time and expense for manufacturers. But for us it is of the utmost importance that we maintain the integrity of our certification mark and do the testing in strict accordance with the standard, even if that may take more time for the client. CSA Group is all about public safety, sustainability and social good and we have a responsibility to ourselves, our members, our clients and public at large.”

Sometimes companies may become so perturbed by CSA Group’s perfection-focused approach that they turn to one of the other standards-setting bodies in the U.S. or around the world for an independent certification. “Then the product fails and they come back to us, which happens,” Sahi points out matter-of-factly. “Products fail all the time if they’re not tested and certified properly.” Defending the CSA Group’s stringent certification and testing processes isn’t always easy for the uncompromising CEO, but it’s a necessary aspect of doing business. “We tell [companies]: ‘Your product doesn’t pass the test, come and see for yourself.’ They have the opportunity to re-examine the product and resubmit it for retesting to ensure it is in compliance with the appropriate standard and can be distributed in the marketplace. Once a product is certified and tested, we’ll also audit their factories four times a year to make sure the product is still being produced as certified and there have been no changes in construction.”

That commitment to quality has earned the CSA Group a strong international reputation and it’s the reason why the organization has set its sights on global, as well as service-area expansion. There are two key areas of growth that excite Sahi. The first is sustainability, which includes renewable energies such as solar and wind, hydrogen vehicles and even hyper-efficient LED lighting, which are in particularly high demand in markets such as China where pollution woes have left officials searching to find more efficient and cleaner sources of energy. The second is what he calls “Canadiana.” Sahi uses the term in reference to the boom in natural resources extraction in the Canadian West, the most controversial being the development of Alberta’s oil sands reserves. Early on in his tenure, Sahi saw the potential to begin setting standards for everything from pipelines to mines.

“We started this comprehensive Canadiana initiative about a year ago and started knocking on doors of the oil, gas, mining and pipeline associations,” Sahi recalls. “This is a highly sophisticated industry with its own set of safety standards and protocols. However, in the last three or four months, we’ve gotten calls from a few of these associations asking for our assistance. We published the Z662 Pipeline Systems standard and launched it a few years ago, now the pipeline association is coming to us asking, ‘How can you help us test and certify?’

It’s a reality of the CSA Group’s work that frustrates Sahi: calls for stricter standards often only emerge in the face of death or disaster. “That’s when standards become important and gain more public and government attention” the CEO laments. It’s an area where he feels Canadian politicians should provide stronger support and leadership for safety and performance standards. “Standards offer a huge competitive advantage for a country because the better [the standards], the better safety record for the citizens and the better the product will be in the end.”

That’s an even greater predicament internationally, where local jurisdictions in emerging countries often turn a blind eye to standards violations or fail to implement reasonable standards in the first place. In that sense, Sahi feels CSA Group can play the role of nation-builder by changing local attitudes and bringing about the kind of change that not only saves lives, but makes economies more competitive in the global marketplace. Still, he’s realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. “The government of India has approached us (to help implement national standards), but the problem in some of these emerging markets is even if they have standards, no one applies them because they are often not legislated or enforced. In Canada many standards are legislated and enforced by regulators nationally or provincially. We’re hoping that by using our brand, we can go to places like India and China and discuss with them processes and measures they may use to implement standards and help enforce them.”

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