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NEW YORK-You have to work hard to make it to the top, and few work harder than Christine LaSala, a senior executive at J&H Marsh & McLennan Inc.

With her typical workday running from 6.30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Ms. LaSala's industriousness is one of many attributes that have taken her to the heights of the insurance brokerage business.

Her commitment to colleagues and clients, her evenhandedness with insurers, and her ability to listen, understand and act quickly on problems and issues, have won Ms. LaSala numerous admirers. She has now won recognition as the APIW 1997 Insurance Woman of the Year.

The award was presented at a ceremony last week by the APIW, a New York-based professional association of women in the insurance and reinsurance industry.

Ms. LaSala's ability to get the best out of herself and others has been the source of her success, said John P. Keyser, co-chair of J&H Marsh & McLennan's global client management practice division, who presented the award.

"She's a rare breed in that she is a driver, driver," he said.

People relish working with Ms. LaSala because of her thorough understanding of insurance issues, general business issues and her ability to work well with people, Mr. Keyser said.

She has also impressed the people she works for, and in 1992 she was made the first, and ultimately only, woman director of Johnson & Higgins.

But other factors drove Ms. LaSala to the insurance business-namely, it was the only job offer she got after graduating from the College of New Rochelle in New York as a philosophy major.

The offer came from Chubb & Son Inc., which she joined as property/casualty underwriter in 1972.

After two years at Chubb, she left to join J&H and moved into the brokering side of the insurance business.

"It was really not a particularly considered career move. I was just getting a little impatient at Chubb. I hadn't really considered the difference between underwriting and broking," she said.

But Ms. LaSala soon began to enjoy her different role as a broker, she said.

"The direct interaction with clients has been the most exciting part of my career," she said.

Although the business has changed, 20 years ago there were more opportunities for brokers than for underwriters to create their own opportunities, Ms. LaSala said.

Having embarked on a brokering career, Ms. LaSala began a steady and determined climb through the ranks at J&H.

In 1985, she was made head of the New Jersey office in Parsippany; in 1991, she was made deputy manager of the New York office and then manager of the office in 1993; then in 1995, she was appointed manager of J&H's Tri-State operations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Her latest appointment is as manager of J&H Marsh & McLennan's operations in New England and its property/casualty operations in New York.

As a woman in the male-dominated insurance industry, Ms. LaSala says there is still a long way to go before women and men are treated on an equal basis.

"The progress has been substantial and the number of women in senior positions continues to grow, but progress has been slow and faltering and it often comes to a standstill at the highest levels," Ms. LaSala said.

Those women who have managed to make it to senior levels have an obligation to help other women make the same progress, but individuals too must strive to climb the corporate ladder, she said.

"There should be much more aggressive mentoring by women who are there, but on the other side of that, individuals must take ownership of their careers and make it a mutual process," Ms. LaSala said.

Men also should encourage the promotion of women, she said. Companies that don't will lag behind as they are, in effect, choosing leaders from a pool of talent that is half the size of that used by more progressive companies, she said.

Ms. LaSala's own ability to use and develop the talent available to her is one of the main reasons that she is an outstanding brokerage executive, said Mike Rubenstein, vp-risk financing at American Express Co. in New York, which is a client of J&H Marsh & McLennan.

By concerning herself with the needs of her teams of client executives, Ms. LaSala is able to help those teams provide exceptional service, he said.

"She serves her team and she sees her job as to help them do what they do. If she drew an organizational chart, she would put the teams at the top," Mr. Rubenstein said.

Another crucial attribute is her ability to carry out her promises, he said.

"All you need out of Christine is to hear her say that she'll take care of it, then you can hang up the phone," he said.

Ms. LaSala's ability to listen and explain also wins respect for her among insurers, said Sue Kesselman, assistant general manager of the Manhattan branch of Royal Insurance Co.

"She always puts the clients first, but I always feel that I'm dealing with someone who understands the issues for everybody that is involved," she said.

Even when tough negotiations are necessary, Ms. LaSala has the knowledge and the personal skills to make everybody feel good about a deal, Ms. Kesselman said.

"You can come away from a meeting with her knowing that you've been squeezed, but you don't come away feeling bad about yourself," she said.