The world of Rolls Royce dealerships is a rarefied one – only 38 exist in North America and 121 in the entire world. Thomas Moorehead joined that exclusive fraternity last December when he opened his franchise in Virginia, becoming the first African American to do so. "It took a lot of hard work," said the 69-year-old entrepreneur of the accomplishment and his other thriving businesses.
It also required perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. "I move ahead and do whatever I can to turn a 'no' into a 'yes,'" he said of his approach.
There were many 'Nos' in Moorehead's life.
Born and reared in poverty in Monroe, La., Moorehead was the eldest of five children. Business was always something he wanted to do, but, at the time, education was the accepted career path. "We don't have any money, son. So the best thing you can do is move up [the education ladder] and become a principal and, if that happens, you would have arrived," Moorehead recalled his grandfather – who raised him – saying."But I told him it was what I wanted to do and I would work very hard to make that dream come true."
His grandfather replied, "If you're going to go into business, then, sell things that people will need. They always have to eat, they always have to sleep and they always have to drive. If you get into business with one of those things you may be successful."
"I've always had those words at the back of my mind," Moorehead said. "And if he were still alive and could see us today, hopefully, he would be proud that I took his advice."
Moorehead attended Grambling State University and earned a bachelor's degree in accounting in 1966. In 1971, he earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan. From 1972-1988, Moorehead worked as an analyst at Mobile and Chrysler Corps, and as director of Community Services at the University of Michigan, where he was pursuing his doctorate.
It was during that time James Bradley, then-principal owner of the Bradley Automotive Group and Moorehead's fraternity brother from Kappa Alpha Psi, urged him to join the car business. He balked at the idea. "The reputation of car salesmen and dealers at the time was [of] individuals standing around in plaid knit jackets, smoking cigarettes and talking fast, and that was just not me," he said.
Bradley persisted, showing Moorehead the financial statements of his company over 10 years and discussing the inner workings of the business. Moorehead was convinced, and with his wife's blessing, decided to take a chance on the auto industry, beginning at the bottom – in sales.
Bradley warned him about the difficulties he would face. "You're going to have to take a step back to take a step forward. Your biggest problem is that all of your colleagues at the University of Michigan will question, 'What's wrong with Tom?'"
Moorehead quoted his mentor as saying. "Mr. Bradley was absolutely correct."
Moorehead sold cars for a year, then paid $65,000 – money he earned rehabbing and selling houses – to enter General Motors' dealership training program, which immersed trainees in every aspect of the business from service to sales and administration. Moorehead was the first graduate of the program, and in 1988, opened his first automobile dealership, Sentry Buick/Isuzu in Omaha, Neb. In 1995, he sold the Omaha operation and purchased a franchise in Decatur, Ill., which he operated as Moorehead Buick-GMC until 2000 when he was awarded a BMW franchise.
Success was hard earned, but Moorehead relied on his mentor's advice and training. "I had a great mentor … Every month for 17 years I sent Mr. Bradley my financial statement and he would take a look at it and ask questions about my decisions and offer advice," Moorehead said. "The first time I had to make a major decision after he passed away was tough for me."
Moorehead built his businesses on good service. He recalled a teacher coming to purchase a car at his first dealership and having to detail her car himself when no other workers were available. When the teacher learned he was the owner, she spread the news, which drew the attention of the local press and established Moorehead's reputation.
"I try to build our reputation on servicing the 'boss,' and the 'boss' is not Mr. Moorehead… [it] is the customer," he said. "If you lose sight of who the boss is you might as well close the door."
That reputation, built over 26 years in business, and his persistence have allowed Moorehead to become the owner of three auto dealerships, Rolls Royce of Sterling, BMW of Sterling and Mini of Sterling; and the owner of nine hotels, including the Marriott Residence Inn at National Harbor Resort and Convention Center in Prince George's County, Md.
Moorehead has paid his blessings forward by mentoring other young entrepreneurs and by advocating for increased diversity in the auto industry. "With the downturn of the financial market we lost a significant portion of African-American dealerships because they ran out of money or because production ended" as in the case of Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Saturn, said Moorehead, the current president of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD). "So we're trying very hard to recover from the loss of these dealerships."
NAMAD has engaged with vehicle manufacturers on the issue. The organization developed partnerships that have "uncovered new markets, new ideas, new talent, and new capital – all to the benefit of automobile manufacturers, entrepreneurs and consumers," the website states.
"By 2025, with the 'browning' of America, we would like to see more of our people in the manufacturing and dealership aspects of the industry instead of just being consumers," Moorehead said.