Thousands of miles from the eucalyptus plantations and pulp mills of Brazil, a small company named BalTerm makes sure that that country's forest products are unloaded from ships here, stored properly and sent to factories in the United States.

The Baltimore company has handled a growing volume of Brazil's wood pulp and other products since the late 1980s. But with competition intensifying, BalTerm recognized that it needed something special to distinguish it from dozens of other companies vying for those imports.

So more than a year ago, BalTerm, led by its general manager Bruce Wrightson, embarked on a tedious and time-consuming project to attain ISO-9000 certification, an international benchmark of quality for manufacturers and service companies.

"Our customers gave us the mandate to get ISO certification," said Scott S. Menzies, president of BalTerm. "They issued us a challenge and we saw it as a prerequisite to remaining competitive."

In July, BalTerm reached its goal, becoming only the fifth stevedoring company in North America to receive ISO accreditation from the Quality Evaluation division of the American Bureau of Shipping. Of the several hundred thousand manufacturing companies in the U.S., roughly 4,000 are ISO certified, according to the ABS.

Established in the late 1970s in England as a quality standard system for the British aerospace industry, the certification process requires companies to painstakingly document their organizational structure, responsibilities, resources and procedures.

An auditor from the ABS ultimately reviews the company to determine whether accreditation should be granted.

While ISO certification didn't exactly make the small Baltimore company a household name, it gave it a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. It means it's prime, not just choice.

In a fiercely competitive global economy, that distinction is becoming more and more critical for companies who want to attract new customers -- or just keep the ones they have. "We live on the edge of the razor," Mr. Menzies said. "We have to keep the mill and the receiver happy."

"Most of our customers have invested billions of dollars in their plant. They trust us as the last person to touch the product."

Shippers in Brazil want to be confident that their forest products will be carefully handled from the time the items are taken off the ship and placed in warehouses to the time they are loaded onto trucks and trains, destined for the Procter & Gamble plant in Green Bay, Wis.

BalTerm was established in 1990 as a joint venture between Terminal Corp., a warehousing and transportation company and its stevedoring arm, Tartan Terminals of Baltimore; and Logistec Stevedoring Inc., Canada's largest stevedoring company. The company leases state-owned warehouses at Dundalk Marine Terminal and North Locust Point.

Its sales pitch is that BalTerm is ideally located because three-fourths of the nation's plants that produce paper products are located in the Midwest and Northeast. Its location, the company says, saves customers transportation time and money.

Today, the company employs about 65 dockworkers who handle virtually all the forest products moving through the port of Baltimore. Its revenues have grown fivefold, to $7.5 million last year vs. about $1.5 million in the year the joint venture was begun.

"It's a family business that has invested millions in equipment and has a trained work force," said Manuel Ramos, who heads the Maryland Port Administration's marketing efforts in the Caribbean and South America. "The speed with which they do the work is extraordinary."

Eight years ago, the port handled 9,000 tons of imported wood pulp. Today it handles 377,000 tons, one of the most significant jumps for any product at the port. "BalTerm is the big reason," said MPA spokesman Jim Gring. "They targeted that commodity and went after it very aggressively."

But ports are competing intensely for cargo, particularly for noncontainerized, or break bulk, shipments such as pulp. That means companies like BalTerm must compete not only on quality, but price. "It's very competitive and we're under a lot of pressure," Mr. Wrightson said.

In Philadelphia, dockworkers have cut their hourly rates for handling break bulk. The issue will confront workers and employers in Baltimore when contract negotiations open this fall.

"The people in Brazil love BalTerm. They're a top-notch outfit," Mr. Ramos said. "But the shippers in Brazil fight for every cent. It's a constant battle for quality and price. And every other port in the U.S. is after this business."

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