Rob Quartel '78, CEO and Chairman, NTELX Technologies
Rob Quartel describes it as his “Oh, bleep” moment. Ten days after 9/11, Quartel sat bolt upright in bed at 3 a.m. with a frightening revelation. “You can use a ship just like a plane — as a weapon,” he remembered thinking. As the CEO and founder of NTELX Technologies, he was focused on using software to help streamline the shipping industry. With Quartel’s new insight, the company “turned on a dime,” as he put it, and put its software to a new use — toward using voluminous trade data to screen for suspicious containers coming into U.S. ports.
“There's something like 12 or 14 million containers coming into the United States now, every year,” he said. “You can't physically inspect them. There's just no technology that really does that quickly enough or with any degree of accuracy — and that doesn't screw up trade. The best way is to target the cargo for inspection, and manage your resources.”
Over the last six years, NTELX has moved aggressively to become a leader in providing software that collects and analyzes data on cargoes coming into U.S. ports (and around the world) in order to flag shipments for inspection. The company built the core software that powers the world’s largest maritime container intelligence system for the U.S. Defense Department and has branched out into other arenas — devising a program with the Transportation Security Agency to screen cargo on passenger airplanes, in Jordan to analyze risks for and manage trucking, as well as piloting a new targeting system for the FDA and now similar work with the Chinese government. The company’s position is far different from the situation before 9/11, when NTELX was a struggling start-up. “It was a bad software market,” Quartel said. “We probably would’ve gone out of business.”
CEO is only one of many titles Quartel has held in his career. His career has alternated between the political and business spheres, and often thrived at an intersection of the two. He graduated from Rice University in 1973 with a degree in environmental science and biology and moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the EPA, the Federal Energy Office, and the Presidential Clemency Board, before volunteering for President Ford’s 1976 campaign, where he was quickly named issues director. After Ford’s defeat, he enrolled at Yale SOM, excited to be part of the first class. Upon graduation, he joined a startup with the former manager of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to use their underground storage technology in the private sector, which he left when he got a call from George Bush asking him to join his campaign for the 1980 Republican nomination. “I went over and met him and I liked him,” Quartel said. Bush lost and Quartel started a consulting practice specializing in energy, transportation, and the environment.
In 1983, Quartel moved back to his native Florida with his wife, Michela English ’79, to run for Congress. He lost, but the political bug stuck with him, prompting an unsuccessful run for a U.S. Senate seat in 1992. After the 1984 loss, he returned to consulting in Washington, until Bush came calling again in 1987. Quartel joined the campaign as a senior policy advisor and after Bush’s election, was nominated to the Federal Maritime Commission. “I didn’t know anything at all about the maritime industry,” he said. “But I had done a lot in transportation and the work that Paul MacAvoy and I had done in the ’79 Bush campaign on deregulation had become the blueprint for Bush, who as the Vice President headed Reagan’s deregulation effort.”
His biggest issue on the Commission was to thin out the web of regulations that allowed a few cartels to control international shipping and drove prices up. His success was limited, but he kept at the issue after he left the job in 1992, forming a political action group to lobby Congress to open up the industry to more competition. “We were outspent by 20-to-1,” he said. “But we made people think about the issue, which was important.” International shipping deregulation finally passed the Congress in 1998.
Quartel spent the late 1990s consulting and investing. He hadn’t planned to jump into business until he had a conversation with a friend, whom he describes as a serial entrepreneur, about the dot-com opportunities in maritime logistics. “I was telling him all the things that needed to be done in the industry,” Quartel said. “And he said, ‘Someone’s going to do it…Why don’t you? I’ll help you raise the money.’ So I became an entrepreneur and here I am today.”
In addition to running a business, Quartel has been an advocate for increasing port security, but often in directions opposite that of prevailing political views on the topic — against what he calls the “technology Luddites.” He’s testified numerous times before Congress and is often asked to write editorials or give speeches on the subject. His main point: “Most of what the public, including Congress, thinks it knows about maritime security is wrong.” He sees the drive to physically inspect 100 percent of incoming containers or to install X-ray machines as primarily political — and wrongheaded both logistically and technologically. “Everything is already “virtually” inspected, in terms of data and risk, and only five percent is then physically inspected. In the best world, even that would be unnecessary. If you analyze the data right, you would inspect less than one percent.