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MEMPHIS, Tenn.-While many brokers have jumped on the quality bandwagon in recent years to improve client service, Sedgwick Group P.L.C. may be raising the stakes.

Earlier this month, Sedgwick became the first broker in the United States to receive ISO 9000 quality certification in four of its U.S. retail brokerage offices and two of its divisions.

The ISO 9000 quality standards, which were established by the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization in 1987, govern business processes from the time of design and placement of an order through the entire service process, to the actual delivery of the product or service.

To receive the certification, a broker must undergo an audit by an accredited third party to ensure the firm meets the elements set forth in the ISO 9000 standards. Those elements are: a plan for quality within the company; documentation of the plan into operating procedures; communication of the procedures to the workforce; a mechanism to monitor the success of the efforts; modification of the standards; and ability to prove the existence of the quality standards to others.

Several other multinational brokers have received ISO 9000 certification, but only in their non-U.S. offices, especially in Europe, where the set of international quality standards has seen its most widespread adoption.

But as more U.S. companies seek ISO 9000 certification-8,462 U.S. companies were certified by ISO as of year-end 1995, compared with only 2,160 U.S. firms in 1993-their insurance brokers may find being certified in the United States a necessity in the future.

Indeed, risk managers whose companies are currently ISO certified say a broker's quality certification would influence their decision if choosing a new broker.

However, until ISO 9000 becomes the standard for businesses in the United States, brokers say they will continue with their own continuous quality improvement initiatives, rather than obtain certification of their U.S. offices.

That approach is fine by Sedgwick, which sees its new certification as a way to differentiate itself from its competitors and better serve U.S. clients.

"Everyone is talking about quality" and "we're all fighting to differentiate from each other," said Donald Morford, president and chief operating officer of Sedgwick James Inc. in Seattle.

Being certified by the ISO is one way to appeal to prospective clients, especially if they also are certified, he said. Indeed, risk managers say ISO certification either is a factor or could be a factor in the future in choosing brokers.

"If it were between three brokers and one had (ISO 9000) certification, it would certainly enter into the equation," said Janet Scott, director of personnel for Shurflo Pump Manufacturing Co. in Santa Ana, Calif., which received ISO 9000 certification in 1993.

"The overriding influence with our insurance broker is the track record we have with them," said Roland Ramberg, president of The Gear Works, Seattle Inc., which became ISO certified in 1994. However, if the manufacturing company were choosing a new broker, "there would be considerable weight given to a broker who's gone through the process to comply with the standard."

"As we, as a company, reconfigure ourselves to address the components of ISO 9000, a broker that has met the same components may indeed be a compelling factor in the future," agreed Jeffrey W. Pettegrew, vp-risk management and insurance for Western Staff Services Inc. in Walnut Creek, Calif. "It's just a matter of time before it will be a standard for brokers."

Sedgwick's retail brokerage offices in Irvine, Calif., Seattle, and Orlando, Fla., received ISO 9000 certification for all lines of business, including property, casualty, personal lines, employee benefits and claims management. Sedgwick James of Texas Inc. in Dallas received certification for all lines except employee benefits, and the offices of benefit consulting subsidiary Sedgwick Noble Lowndes in Florida received certification for all of its activities, as did Sedgwick James Claims Management Services of Texas in Dallas.

Despite the "onerous" task of becoming certified, not to mention the "millions of dollars" that went into the initiative, "we believe it's the right way to go," said Sedgwick's Mr. Morford. Whereas brokerages often call themselves quality organizations, Sedgwick's clients now know "that we say what we do, do what we say, and we can prove it," he said.

While Sedgwick aims to receive certification of its offices worldwide by the end of 1998, other brokers do not put a high priority on it.

"We've looked at ISO 9000 and felt, in the U.S., it's not something we're going to do at the moment," said Harry Taback, a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc. and head of M&M Protection Consultants in New York.

Marsh & McLennan's quality commitment is as strong without the certification, he said. But in the future, he added, "undoubtedly, more companies, including brokers, will seek the certification."

At Johnson & Higgins, "we're relying much more heavily on customer-focused initiatives and staff-focused initiatives, rather than process-focused initiatives like ISO 9000," said Betsy Balderston, a principal and senior vp in the Philadelphia office.

Richard A. Riley, president of Chicago-based Rollins Hudig Hall Co., which will be known as Aon Risk Services effective Feb. 1, said that while RHH has been looking at ISO 9000 certification for its U.S. offices for quite some time, it has instead chosen to focus on its own "signature service" quality initiative.

ISO 9000 is the standard with manufacturers in Europe, "but that's not the case here yet," Mr. Riley said. However, he added, "if customers tell us that (ISO 9000) is the standard, we will hold ourselves to that standard."