Ocado boss in spotlight after ducking questions about Presidents Club

The last we heard from Tim Steiner – the boss of online grocer Ocado – he was courageously slamming down the phone as reporters inquired whether he’d enjoyed a pleasant evening at the Presidents Club. Delightfully, just as the noise around the scandal of the charity dinner appears to be dissipating, the tycoon is being forced into the public eye, with the company he co-founded due to unveil its final results this week and Steiner pencilled in for the gig.

If he’s brave enough to appear, the businessman can expect to be quizzed on which, if any, of the alleged incidents of sexual harassment he witnessed at the Dorchester that night. He will also be asked for his take on how his customers might view him attending an all-male event, featuring 130 “hostesses” walking into a ballroom clad in short, tight, black skirts and high heels.

Fittingly, Steiner will appear at the Ocado presentation this week sporting a skimpy black number of his own: but his will be a profit figure.

For the first time, the company will be reporting separate numbers for both its grocery delivery business and its much newer “solutions” arm, which flogs its warehousing technology to other grocers that need an online delivery operation.

Ocado’s own grocery business may be boring, but it has finally worked out how to make a profit, having had more false starts than David Walliams has had after-dinners.

Conversely, the tech bit is yet to make any money but – after signing deals with Morrisons, France’s Casino and Canada’s second-largest food retailer Sobeys – it is the only part of the company that the City is actually interested in. It is also the sole story driving up Ocado shares.

Ken Odeluga, a market analyst at spread-betting firm City Index, says: “Recent news has strengthened investor confidence in Ocado, after a long stretch in which it strained credibility and shareholder patience. The shares became one of the most shorted on the London Stock Exchange following failure to live up to early-2015 claims that it would soon sign new deals like the one it has with Morrisons. It did eventually ink another deal, about 18 months later.”

Still, the deals have horrified the legion of hedge funds betting against Ocado shares, as much as they have delighted Steiner and his supporters. But the optimists should be careful not to crow too much as – just like the scandal at the Presidents Club – this is something the boss simply did not see coming.

When Ocado floated in 2010, its 281-page flotation prospectus – the main marketing document when a company sells its shares to City investors – barely mentioned the tech idea at all, and certainly didn’t find room to crowbar it into the sections entitled “strengths of the Ocado business”, or the bit they called “Ocado’s strategy”.

The document did give the idea a cursory mention in the following phrase: “Ocado has granted its wholly owned subsidiary, Ocado Information Technology Limited (which is incorporated in the Republic of Ireland), the exclusive rights to use and sub-licence Ocado’s IT and IP to third parties for use outside the UK.”

All of which raises an obvious question about tax, as well as many more about what else is in the offing.

Company filings in Ireland show that, as Ocado’s technology business drives up the shares, the Dublin-based subsidiary is being liquidated. Why? And who has the licence rights?

The company reckons there was never a tax advantage and the rights are now back in the UK. Still, just like the night at the Dorchester, it’s something to raise with Steiner when he resurfaces this week.