Mao Aoust is the founder of "High Society", a company specializing in legal cannabis.
Le Marseillais launched its activity a little over four years ago and now has nearly 150 stores in Europe.
Meeting with a budding 24-year-old entrepreneur who cultivates his image and heads a company that generates a turnover of 21 million euros.
Spring 2018, Zurich, Switzerland.
Cannabis vacuum bags change hands.
“Life really hasn't changed,” thought Mao Aoust as he concluded the transaction.
And for good reason.
The latest he had made had ended in handcuffs, destined for custody.
It was in December 2017. The Marseille police had been interested in him for several weeks already.
During the search, the investigators discovered in a house on the outskirts of the city a cannabis grow room and a handful of kilos of merchandise.
His life "hasn't really changed", except for one detail: the transaction he made that day in Switzerland was not illegal.
It is CBD, this legal cannabis because it does not contain THC - the molecule with psychotropic effects.
The resale structure is also in the nails of the law.
The 20-year-old was preparing to open his first “High Society” store in the trendy Cours Ju district.
Four years later, there are now nearly 200 - including 150 franchises - in France but also in Spain and Germany.
His company generates a turnover of 21 million euros and employs more than 150 people.
“When I start, those around me tell me: 'You're crazy.
You are waiting for a sentence adjustment, you did not understand what happened, I believe.
But it passes.
It is with a one-year prison sentence, which he will serve under bracelet, that this spring day 2018 Mao Aoust comes down from Zurich with his new life in the trunk and a proper invoice for his merchandise. .
"This CBD, I had still paid for it by bank transfer just in case", recalls the budding entrepreneur.
He passes through customs without incident.
The Marseille police have visibly lifted their surveillance.
“It's ugly, but I'm white, I look good.
You understood”, he sums up today from the conference room of his headquarters located in Marseille.
A budding Steve Jobs look
Mao Aoust doesn't just cultivate grass, he also knows how to cultivate his image.
Like a Steve Jobs, he adopted a daily outfit: basketball, pants and black T-shirt in all circumstances.
His blue eyes are piercing.
"He doesn't like the light, but wherever he goes you remember him," says Fanny Fontan, author-documentary director who has been following "the CBD baron" for a year and a half for a film project.
“His story is romantic.
He's an iconic person in cinematic terms.
It also represents a form of social transgression by moving from illegality to legality, by now evolving in an entrepreneurial environment that was not originally its own.
He also represents this generation feeding on liberalism.
Mao is a Macron baby in a way.
It's an American
Of the one where people start with nothing and risk everything to build an empire.
Without investor or business angel.
"I did not go through a start-up incubator", likes to explain Mao Aoust.
The CEO of "High Society" grew up in the 5th arrondissement of Marseille, in La Plaine.
His parents are artisans, his father works in construction.
He stopped school at 18 with the technical baccalaureate.
Already, he is passionate about cannabis.
He devours all the cannabis culture blogs and develops an experiential knowledge of the plant.
First those in French, then he quickly moved on to American and English sites, a language he read and spoke fluently from high school.
A knowledge developed during his many hours spent playing video games, an activity he still engages in to relax.
Mao is a Macron baby in a way.
It's an American success story.
It is partly this fluency in English that allowed him to find his first suppliers and launch his activity.
"In fact, as soon as I read that the first store selling CBD in France had opened in Besançon (in April 2018), I said to myself: ''but what is this madness, we can sell legal weed?' And I started looking for suppliers on the Internet and making phone calls abroad.
The sector is then in full expansion and very profitable.
The margins achieved are disproportionate to the illegal market.
“I was making four to five times more than before.
And yet I was selling at 16 euros per gram, where the other shops were selling at 20”, explains Mao.
In the wake of the success of his first Cours Ju store, he quickly opened a second, then four others in Marseille.
Extends to La Ciotat, Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier.
“Then come the Covid and the lockdown.
In the aftermath, it explodes completely.
We do four to five store openings a week.
We undergo a little growth but we give everything ”.
Yet everything could well have stopped in full ascent.
On December 30, 2021, the French State issued an order prohibiting the sale of cannabis flowers with a THC level of less than 0.3%.
The young CBD professional union, co-founded a few months earlier by Mao Aoust and chaired by Charles Morel, a criminal lawyer by training, reacted immediately.
On January 24, 2022, the judge in chambers of the Council of State, seized in emergency, suspended this ban by order, before purely canceling it a year later.
"A fucking revenge"
Since then, the market “has been in a stabilization phase”, understands the young CEO.
After a somewhat disorderly growth, his company was properly structured.
It has recruited experienced profiles to key positions in the administrative and financial management.
It has appointed a managing director to replace it.
“I can't afford to do anything, you see.
I have 150 employees and as many families behind”.
For that, he takes care of his lifestyle, does not take drugs (he stopped reactive cannabis four years ago), does not drink, plays sports every morning and works six days a week. At 24, he shows an astonishing maturity, somewhat forced by fate.
His destiny, moreover, he continues to write.
Its ambitions are high for 2023: to double the sales volume in “all sale”,
that is to say as a wholesaler for other CBD professionals, and to flood tobacco merchants with its products - it is already present at 1,500 tobacconists.
Its warehouse, to which we did not have access, is also the subject of major investments.
A joint rolling machine was acquired.
In a few days, Mao Aoust and members of his team will fly to Thailand, a country which has just legalized the recreational use of cannabis, in order to open a “High Society” there.
"It's a kif," he rejoices.
“I was convicted of selling cannabis and almost went to prison for it.
Now I'm going to sell it legally on the other side of the world.
It's a fucking revenge, ”he savors.
A revenge that he also owes, in a sense, to the police and the justice system who cut him off in his illegal activity.
Today, the young entrepreneur is done with his troubles with the law.
But his activity questions and arouses envy on the side of Marseille thugs.
Recently, one of his transport trucks was robbed before being found on fire.
“We move 18 tonnes of weed a year.
It's not nothing.
our dossier on the sale of cannabis
Still, behind him is also a cultural revolution that Mao is leading.
"I have no moral problem selling products that have more effects than others," he warns.
The development of CBD is a first step towards the legalization of recreational cannabis.
Let's be sure that when that day comes, the “High Society” will be ready.
"We are first and foremost cannabis specialists," he concludes.
And you can feel it in the corridors of its Marseille headquarters where among the oils and other CBD infusions, there is a lingering smell of weed that emanates from bags and weed heads sticking out of the boxes.
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