By Nilima Pathak Published: June 13, 2008, 00:03
Get to know Bob Hoekstra, former CEO, Philips Software Centre, Bangalore, India.
I believe in living for the moment.
My motto has been to enjoy life. Things may not work out my way all the time, but I believe in at least trying.
I like action and have the passion to take up anything and pursue it wholeheartedly. If you act out of fear, you tend to make the wrong decisions.
During my eventful seven-year journey through India as part of my 37 years with Philips, I was inspired by the eagerness and motivation levels of the locals. Indians are also very good at accepting things as they are.
India’s extremes of dire poverty and IT success compelled me to write two books: An Exemplary Family in Bangalore and Other Short Stories, which contains vignettes of life in Bangalore, and Our India, which details my impressions of India.
The proceeds of the book go
to two Indian NGOs: The HOPE Foundation and Freedom Foundation, which focus on education and health issues respectively.
I had to ask myself if I was making the right decision at the time. When I landed in Bangalore in 1999, I almost took the first return flight out of the country. I only stayed because my wife, Geraldine, thought we should treat it as an experience.
It was all so shocking to find stray dogs and cows at Bangalore’s international airport, but Geraldine insisted that we take it as a challenge. We checked into The Taj West End Hotel.
To our surprise, the surroundings of the hotel were in total contrast to what we had experienced a little while earlier.
I remember going to my luxurious office the next morning.
Gazing out of the office window, I saw a neighbourhood that was very poor. At an intersection outside, the traffic – including bicycles, autorickshaws, cars and buses – was honking away and danger was lurking all around. Inside my office there was nothing but world-class professionalism.
The staff was disciplined, results-oriented and
time-focused.Over the weekend, Geraldine and I would do a bit of exploring and go for walks on Race Course Road. Initially it was difficult to get used to people intruding.
Many Indians, without meaning any harm, are quite inquisitive by nature. Since we didn’t speak Hindi, it was difficult to make people understand that we needed space, but we soon hired
a driver who spoke good English and we were then able to communicate.
On weekdays I would initiate company programmes to address rural markets. And since cycling has been a hobby, on weekends I would go to Nandi Hills (about 55 km from Bangalore) to interact with families. That interaction made me understand and empathise with the less fortunate.
I developed a different perspective towards life. The technologies we applied to serve the people in the villages made me very hopeful that India would thrive.
Early life I was born in Eindhoven in southern Netherlands on April 11, 1945 and raised in The Hague. I spent the best years of my life in school. My elementary school was close to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, in the middle of the fields. I remember walking through the potato fields with my classmates.
We would often steal potatoes and corn, build a campfire and bake them. I still remember that taste!
My family stayed close to the Peace Palace in The Hague on the coast of the Netherlands. During summer, I loved doing my homework on the beach and carried my books along
and had fun. At one time, I wanted to become a forest ranger, then later, a pilot. It was all a part of growing up.
I was quite good in mathematics, physics and chemistry. In those days one could easily buy sulphuric acid and all kinds of chemicals. We had a storeroom in the house and I did my chemistry experiments there. I’m lucky that I never burnt the house down.
I graduated with a Masters in Physics in 1968 from the Technical University, Delft in the Netherlands and received offers from the best industrial research laboratories, including Shell and Unilever.
But Philips seemed like a logical choice because both sets of grandparents and other family members had worked with Philips and it was considered the best laboratory in the Netherlands.
The meaning of marriage
Geraldine and I met in 1962 when we were 17 and 16, respectively. We got married in 1967 while we were still
in college. When I was working at Philips Research, opportunities came along and I got an offer to go to Bell Laboratories in the US on an exchange programme in 1976.
We had two children by then and since our daughter, Marieke, and son, Tim, were still young, we stayed there for over a year before returning to the Netherlands. Geraldine has always been extremely supportive; marriage certainly helped me evolve as a person.
She took care of the children and looked after the house. Later she earned her degree. Back then it was difficult to find a job unless it was in the teaching profession. So she worked as a private English tutor. We made many right decisions in that respect.
I remember a remark made by an Indian friend much later in life. He was explaining that the reason the Indian service industry was doing remarkably well was due to the fact that most Indians opted for arranged marriages. “Indians have to try to make relationships work,” he said. This made a strong impact on my life and gave our marriage a new meaning.
Once our children grew up, we decided to explore the world. In 1992 we went to Knoxville, Tennessee, while still with Philips. In 1996, we went to Taiwan and I worked as the chief technology officer for Philips computer monitors business. This was another great and new experience, as the large computer companies like IBM, HP and Dell drive this business.
Being out of my home country widened my outlook. All countries have their own distinct living style, but as an expatriate one has to decide about one’s biases and count on everything as a new experience.
Having travelled to several places, I observed various cultures, customs and habits. I found that in the US, drivers invariably had a tendency to be polite.
In Los Angeles, they readily gave way to pedestrians. India was absolutely different.
A driver in the US had once warned me, “In India, you need only three things to drive: a horn, a brake and courage.” Even my father, who had been to India, remarked that traffic in India was “not normal”. I remember wondering what he meant
by “not normal” at the time, but I found out for myself soon enough.
People say I’m obsessed with Indian culture and customs. That might well be true! Sometime back, I held an elaborate Indian naming ceremony and gave Indian names, Kavitha and Bhaskaran, to my grandchildren, Merel and Tobias.
I am going back to the Netherlands with some great experiences. I’m glad I didn’t turn around and go home on that first day I landed!
– As told to Nilima Pathak, a writer based in India