June 10, 2011 5:19 pm

The man with the Ocado van

Jason Gissing, co-founder of the middle classes’ favourite online grocer, would rather talk about his mid-life crisis than his business
Jason Gissing

On the morning of our meeting, Jason Gissing wakes up in his big house in Bayswater and puts on a cardigan of brightest cerise. By some freak of serendipity, I open a drawer in north London and pick out a cardigan of identical hue.

Even though we’ve never met, the bond between us is strong. For years, Gissing has been writing me slightly over-familiar letters signed “Jason”. And even though I’ve tended to sling them unread into the bin, I still regard him as perhaps the most ­helpful man in my life. By co-founding Ocado, the online grocer, he has delivered me from a weekly trudge up and down the aisles of the supermarket. Instead, since the day I became a customer in 2003, a colourful van draws up punctually in front of my house, a well-mannered person in a fluorescent vest carries the groceries into my kitchen and removes last week’s bags. Total number of wearisome hours he’s saved me so far: two a week, 824 altogether – more than an entire month.

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Lucy Kellaway

“Snap,” we say, by way of greeting, observing the other’s outfit. Gissing is tall, gaunt, half-Japanese, and looks good in bright pink. But he also looks a bit shifty as he steers me away from his own office, towards a smaller, characterless room, belonging to Andrew Bracey, the finance director.

“Everyone’s worried because I’m going to sit in a room with you for an hour and a half and I’m just going to embarrass myself,” he says. “But I said to them: no, I’m going to be very focused. I’m not going to say anything controversial.” He lowers his eyelids in a way that reminds me of Princess Diana.

But before we even sit down, he departs from script, leaning on the desk, which cracks under him. “Andrew is going to f***ing kill me,” he exclaims with delight. “I’ve broken his desk!”

Before the interview I’ve been on a tour of the Ocado warehouse in Hatfield from which 20,000 orders are dispatched every day. I’ve watched spellbound as the red crates trundle merrily around 10 miles of conveyor belts, each one programmed to know where to go for the peanut butter and where for the Parmesan. I’ve marvelled at the idea that there are several hundred people in the IT department perfecting algorithms for how many sacks of barbecue briquettes can be packed on a pallet, how every square millimetre of space can best be used.

While we go round, the PR man keeps up a steady patter: Jason is passionate about Ocado’s carbon footprint; Jason will want to tell me about how the warehouse is coping with growth; Jason will want to talk about how they will soon be able to write my shopping list for me. But Jason, it turns out, wants to talk to me about something else: his latest mid-life crisis.

His first crisis, he says, was at the early age of 29, when he discovered that he didn’t want to go on being a Goldman Sachs bond trader. With two ­colleagues – Tim Steiner and Jonathan Fairman – he quit, rented a tiny room near Victoria and became an online grocer instead.

. . .

But now, at 40, he has done it again. That weekend he was in Switzerland for his wife’s 40th birthday. Guests were flown in from all over the world including Peter Holmes à Court, Gissing’s best friend from Oxford and fellow member of the Bullingdon drinking club.

His wife’s family (“they’re bonkers – fantastic, but bonkers”) sound an exotic lot: she is a retired ­professional skier, her forebears are mountaineers and ecologists and her stepmother is Diana Ross (“Diana couldn’t come unfortunately, but she’s lovely – the kids call her Deeda”).

Thus surrounded by the rich, the beautiful, the successful and the famous, Gissing stood up to speak. “I hate giving speeches – but it forced me to stand back and take stock, to reflect on what ­actually matters.”

Which is what, I ask.

“I really care about my family and my friends, but when you find yourself like a hamster in a wheel, which I did for almost 20 years – eight years at Goldman Sachs, 11 years here – and you take stock, it can be quite unsettling.”

I don’t think he ought to be saying this, but then Gissing has a history of saying things he ought not to. He once told a newspaper that Waitrose, with which Ocado has an exclusive supply contract, was “a pain in the ass to deal with”. Then, when Ocado was still private and when he was finance director, he said to the FT: “I would rather shoot myself than be a finance director of a listed company.”

And now he’s telling me that he doesn’t want to be running Ocado when it’s huge in 20 years time, “because that’s just not me”.

So what would be him?

“I’ve no idea; I don’t know. I might be dead! Who knows?” He laughs and then goes on:

“Ninety-five per cent of the stuff that goes on in my head is completely irrelevant to what really matters. In a way it’s important if the temperature in the van’s not right, or if we missed this forecast, but actually, when a human being sits down and thinks about what really matters and what has made them happy, that stuff’s just noise.”

Gissing may be right in a big philosophical way, but it is an unwritten rule that directors of public companies are banned from having big philo-sophical moments, at least not in public. They certainly aren’t allowed to say that missing a forecast is “just noise”.

Perhaps it is because of our pink cardigans, but I find myself taking on the role he should have been playing and declaring that Ocado definitely adds meaning to my life. “Oh. Great,” he says, but he looks more embarrassed than pleased.

The story I would have told if I were him goes like this: Ocado is an extraordinary marriage of highest and lowest tech, it is ecological, it has provided jobs for 5,000 people and David Cameron is a customer – as he recently told parliament. It’s got glamorous founders and glamorous shareholders. While the flotation was a flop and many people doubted that the company would ever make money, its investors – who include Al Gore’s investment fund and Nick Roditi, who used to run investments for George Soros – were recently rewarded with the announcement of a maiden pre-tax profit.

I parade some of these achievements in front of Gissing, and ask if he ever wonders how they pulled it off. “I do scratch my head and go: oh my God, this is extraordinary. But if you asked Tim, he’d say this is what we set out to do.”

Which makes me wonder if the relationship between the two founders works with Jason as heart to Tim’s head? Gissing looks doubtful.

 
Ocado founders Tim Steiner, Jason Gissing Jonathan Fairman

Jason Gissing with his fellow Ocado co-founders Tim Steiner (left) and Jonathan Fairman at company’s the distribution centre in Hatfield

“I always used to joke to Tim that if we were the Beatles – not that we are – then I’m Ringo Starr. Paul could play the drums better than Ringo, but Paul was busy playing the guitar and singing. But then Ringo married Barbara Bach who was prettier than all the other women that the boys married – and I’ve got Katinka…”

I stare at him. Is he saying that his business partner’s wife is a dog? And then I remember that the Beatles’ drummer was famous for verbal gaffes, and I think they aren’t that dissimilar after all.

I steer the conversation on to what will surely be the safer ground of his new job. Since declaring his loathing for finance, Gissing is now doing ­something softer.

“I’ve got a title which makes me sound like someone from Leonid Brezhnev’s politburo – director of people, culture and communication – and so I sit in the boardroom and I get characterised as the petulant teenager that just keeps saying, ‘Oh, you’re all so corporate.’”

But to explain this new job to me he gets into deeper trouble.

“I joke that because my mother is Japanese I have a natural aversion to Chinese people.”

I give an unnatural laugh and he ploughs on: “In China, they were so focused on their economic growth that they’ve suddenly woken up and thought, oh shit, we’ve got some real social problems. In our own microcosmic way we’ve gone from three people to 5,000 people, and from no sales to £700m. When you are growing very fast there’s a lot of stuff – like making sure people feel valued and understood – that you neglect.”

The answer, he says, is to listen to every complaint from every employee and every random suggestion about how to do things better.

So I tell him that my Rachel’s yogurts keep on exploding in my bag, and he shrugs and says that’s the trouble with yogurts – they are designed to sit on supermarket shelves.

“If I go out for dinner everyone has opinions about our business. But it’s nice – when I used to say I’m a bond trader they’d yawn and turn away.”

I point out that was over 10 years ago, since when Goldman bankers have attracted abuse rather than yawns at dinner parties. His former colleagues, he says, don’t deserve to be so hated.

“They’re very good at what they do. It’s like having 20 children over for a party; you set the rules, and whatever they do within the confines of the rules that you give them, I think is fair game. That’s free markets, that’s capitalism.”

. . .

His metaphor about children and capitalism applies equally well, I think, to Ocado, and to those other successful companies founded by posh young Brits: Boden and Innocent. All of them seek to establish a chummy rapport with customers, talking to them as if they were precocious primary school children. Ocado’s vans are in primary colours, and its website is full of short little sentences like “Scary stuff.”

Though I love the service, I tell him I’m not so sure about the matey persona of the company. I want to buy groceries from Ocado. I don’t want it to be my friend.

“That’s your perception,” he says, looking a bit hurt. “But we’ve got 1.5 million registered customers and they’re all different, so what you will find twee, someone else will say, ‘Actually that’s what I want.’”

But does he really need to use quite so much hyperbole? One of company’s values says: “We’ll be proud of all the wonderful groceries we sell.”

All of them? Is he proud of Pot Noodle?

Gissing laughs and takes a sip of a smoothie.

“Well it’s an interesting product; I lived off it at Oxford. I don’t really eat it anymore, but am I proud that we sell Dovecote Park organic meat and it’s all grass fed … yes, I’m really proud of that.”

Which I take as a no. He goes on: “I think that consumers appreciate that a business has a personality. My view is that I am who I am and I behave the way I behave, and I’ve got to a point in my life where I’m confident enough to say, well, this is who I am, take it or leave it.”

Gissing’s personality was to the fore earlier this year when he asked customers to give money to the victims of the earthquake in Japan.

“I talked to Tim, and he said, Japan’s one of the richest countries in the world, and you didn’t want people to give money to Bangladesh or Bali, and so why are you jumping up and down about Japan? And I said, because it’s my family.

“And he said, what about Mrs Smith in Berkshire? She doesn’t care about your family; I said, I know, but you know what? It’s our business and I care passionately and I’m going to do something.”

But in the end Mrs Smith did care, and the money came flooding in.

“I exploited my position,” he says cheerfully.

But I say I was worried not about the appeal for money, but about his outpouring of emotion. On his blog he wrote: “When I read about the earthquake in Japan I cried and cried.”

“I’m a 40-year-old bloke and I’m not supposed to just sit at home crying. But I was just being honest about the fact that it really upset me and so I just … people said you can’t write this, and I said, oh f*** it, just write it.”

And so he did.

The interview is nearly over, and he hasn’t mentioned ecology at all, or talked as he usually does about turning off taps and how every little bit helps. What puzzles me about this is that you can be as draconian with the taps as you like, but you can’t undo the carbon catastrophe of having four children, as he has.

“I agree. It’s irresponsible, yes, absolutely.”

He smiles winningly and anticipates my next question.“How did it happen? You want to talk about my sex life?”

At this point the PR man comes in to say the photographer is ready, and something clicks in Gissing. “I’m evangelical about what we’ve done here,” he suddenly states. “I’m excited by that, and I am as excited by that today as I was 10 years ago.”

I hold out my hand, but he ignores it and kisses me on both cheeks.

Back in the office there is an e-mail waiting for me. “Note to self,” it says. “Never sit down with a journalist after a three-day party to celebrate the 40th birthday of one’s wife. I fear I have come across as a rudderless, sentimental, slightly faded entrepreneur rather than taking the opportunity to firmly stamp Ocado’s pioneering business (and its green conscience) on the general public.”

Gissing, unusually for a businessman, has got himself rather well.

lucy.kellaway@ft.com

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