Villagers living around Bangalore's northern periphery had got used to the sight of a white-haired foreigner cycling by on the rutted roads. Smiling and pausing to take in the view, Bob Hoekstra, then Chief Executive of Philips Innovation Campus in Bangalore, was known for pedalling off on random jaunts to get a feel of the country he first visited in 1999.
Hoekstra was a Philips lifer, joining the company as part of his doctoral programme in the 1960s and staying with them until he retired five years ago. In that period, he went from working on his PhD at Delft University in the Netherlands to being vice president of the colour TV business, then chief technology officer of the computer monitor business, before landing in India in 1999 to lead the innovation unit.
For someone who had worked mainly in the developed world (the Netherlands, the US and Taiwan), moving to India was a culture shock. "I was scared and curious," the 65-year-old says. "I was absolutely shocked by the chaos, the noise, the smells, and the colours. But, curious enough to relocate."
Hoekstra was alternately horrified by Bangalore's shambolic infrastructure and thrilled by the talented engineers at Philips. "I was shocked by the contrast," he says, "In the office I experienced a modern world, outside the office a developing country." This didn't deter Philips and Hoekstra from expanding in the city.
The innovation unit grew from 650 people initially to 1,400 when Hoekstra decided to retire and head back to the Netherlands in 2005. But respite from the hubbub of India was short-lived. Though he's no longer based here, Hoekstra visits every alternate month to keep his new business interests going. His ventures postretirement are focused on small businesses.
As the market slows in Europe for small and medium enterprises, such companies are looking closely at the Indian market. Hoekstra's new unit, Palindrome Technology, wants to help these firms navigate the Indian market. His second bet for India is on renewable energy. Hoekstra has been a long-time advocate of clean energy, even driving a electric-powered Reva around Bangalore. He has started a company called Enthrift to provide energy consultancy to start-ups.
Hoekstra admits getting business in India is difficult. But despite hiccups, Hoekstra's enthusiasm for India has not dimmed. "I have always felt at home from the beginning," he says.