With a history that spans more than 30 years in the automotive industry, Thomas Moorehead is a national treasure and a pioneer. Becoming the first African American to own a Rolls-Royce dealership is no small feat, but in his usual understated manner, that is not the only dealership he owns. In Sterling, Virginia, Mr. Moorehead is also the owner of BMW, MINI, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Harley Davidson dealerships. Automobile dealerships are not Mr. Moorehead’s only venture; he is the owner of several hotels and a charitable individual who has also donated to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and many other causes including historical Black Colleges and Universities like his alma mater, Grambling State University, through the foundation he and his wife, established. A Monroe, Louisiana native, Moorehead’s rise in enterprise has been simultaneously spectacular and inspirational and I cherish the moment I had to share with him and discuss his path. Our dialogue is featured below, edited for length and clarity.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Sterling Owner, Thomas Moorehead, Interview
Damola Idowu: Introduce yourself and talk about your dealership.
Thomas Moorehead: Well first of all, I just want to thank you for taking time to come out to be with us this evening. I’m Thomas Moorehead. I am the owner of Sterling Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Sterling. It’s an honor to have you here this evening. Thank you so much for coming out. We look forward to having you come back. We have actually been in business now with Rolls-Royce for about a year and a half. It has been a wonderful experience. We’re just getting to the point where we have completed our showroom minus the signage up front. Once we get that done, it’ll be totally done. But at this point in time, we’re so happy to have you all here this evening.
Damola Idowu: So now, your journey has been long in the automotive industry. I mean, we are very fascinated by how you have been able to move up, especially what you’ve been able to do in this region. I’ve been looking at the Black Enterprise top dealer list and you’ve been steadily climbing. So, kind of give us a little background to how you’ve been able to get to this prestigious position of being the first African American to actually own a Rolls-Royce dealership.
Thomas Moorehead: Well you know for me, this is my 31st year in the car business…
Damola Idowu: Exactly.
Thomas Moorehead: …which is a long journey, but I started with a friend of mine, a fraternity brother, who actually said to me that I had to really look at this business, and I was of course trying to get my PhD done at the University of Michigan. So, I was two courses short plus a dissertation.
Damola Idowu: In what field?
Thomas Moorehead: Oh actually, I was getting it in urban and regional planning.
Damola Idowu: Okay.
Thomas Moorehead: And he said to me, he says, let me teach you this business. And after about ten different sittings with him and having an opportunity to look at his financial statement over a ten-year period of time. I could obviously see the cyclical nature of the business itself. And what it said to me is that if I get in and learn the little nuances of the business, and truly learn the business, that it would be something that I would truly enjoy. And as a result of that, that’s what got me into the business. And for 17 years of my being a car dealer, Mr. Bradley is his name, he was the one who really shepherded me through and got me to where I am today. So my success is really standing on the shoulders…
Damola Idowu: Of Bradley…
Thomas Moorehead: ..like Mr. Bradley, who took me under his wing and taught me this business. That’s why I’m standing here today.
Damola Idowu: But how did you move in with BMW because we’ve talked to a lot of other people that have owned dealerships with wide range from whether it’s Steve Ewing in Atlanta to Ray Catena doing his thing. So what is the program that BMW Group of North America has to allow people to be able to acquire a dealership?
Thomas Moorehead: Well actually, I didn’t have any special program, but I had been with General Motors with two different dealerships…So my foundation really came from General Motors. Steve Ewing, the young man that you talk about, he’s a great guy, fraternity brother of mine…For me, it was having an opportunity to present who I was to BMW. And once I did that and they looked at my credentials and looked at what we had done with Buick. We actually had Buick; we had GMC Truck; we had Isuzu and ironically, I had BMW some years ago, but I was in an ad-based community and as a result of that, I turned the franchise in, because it wasn’t selling a lot of BMW’s. And what I was looking at, it didn’t make a good business case where I was located. So when I turned it in and I actually had another opportunity to come here, I applied again and because of the work that I had done- it’s really all about…
Damola Idowu: So what was the first market that you got into?
Thomas Moorehead: The first market that I got into was Omaha, Nebraska.
Damola Idowu: Oh yeah, yeah.
Thomas Moorehead: And then I got a store in Decatur, Illinois.
Damola Idowu: Yeah.
Thomas Moorehead: But it’s really all about selling and servicing the automobile. If you take care of the customer – and what I’ve always said, I can’t be the most expensive; I can’t be the cheapest; but I can have the best service component and that’s what I’ve tried to have over the years. When we built the facility across the street over there, what I said to them was, the first thing we have to do is to build a solid foundation in service. And that is really what’s caused me to be the where I am today. The boss of our operation is not Tom Moorehead, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Customer and without them, we might as well lock our doors, because we wouldn’t survive. So we’re here to make sure that we take care of the boss, Mr. and Mrs. Customer and if we do that, then that’s the foundation of being successful in the car business.
Damola Idowu: …So talking about that, so customer service – because in this region you have 7 of the top 15 richest counties. Maryland has the highest median income in the country. You have people with a lot of degrees so you have very affluent potential customers and there’s also a lot of other BMW dealerships regionally here. So outside of just customer service and working from the service angle, how did you differentiate and how were you able to build year after year and gain market share at Sterling BMW?
Thomas Moorehead: Well it was all about me making sure that we took care of each and every customer that walked through our door. If I saw a customer walk out of our door and they had a frown on their face, then I knew we had a problem. It was bending over backwards. Very early on, one of the things that I did and we’re not perfect and I’ve always said, if you ever make a mistake then admit you made the mistake then do everything in your power to correct the mistake that you made. And early on in my development, one of the things that I would do, I had a young lady who made homemade coffee cakes, and she would put them in a tin and if we did not perform at the level that we should, we would then call, pick up the car, take care of it, take it back to them.
Damola Idowu: Wow.
Thomas Moorehead: Once we did that, we would also send out that homemade coffee cake and I wanted to make sure that we left a good taste in their mouths. And that too was kind of one of my trademarks…
Damola Idowu: Wow. So even confection…
Thomas Moorehead: Absolutely, and it’s doing the thing that people least expect.
Damola Idowu: And it’s the little things is what it seems like.
Thomas Moorehead: Absolutely. It’s really not about trying to do a lot of big things because at the end of the day, what the customer wants is for you to take care of them. They don’t want a lot of thrills. If you take care of them and respect their time, they will come back to you. So that’s really the key, respecting the customer’s time, taking care of them when they at least come to you and give you an opportunity to earn their business, you’ve got to perform…
Damola Idowu: Now, this is a historic day. And also when we talk about you actually getting the region, that is very huge because that license – or that sales license has been with an automotive sales group that has been dominant in luxury in this region for pretty much almost my whole life. So talk about that process because slow and steady runs the race, but to me that is fascinating and something I’m very curious about – how you were able to be the first, not only nationwide, but also in this region, moving it from Bethesda to Sterling, Virginia.
Thomas Moorehead: Well, you know, I had someone tell me one time that, being the first African American to ever own a Rolls-Royce dealership in the world, how do you feel? And I have a good friend of mine, Hank Aaron, who…
Damola Idowu: He’s doing great…He has his own BMW in Atlanta, too, and Toyotas and everything.
Thomas Moorehead: I was sitting and talking to him one day and we talked about that and I really didn’t think about it from the standpoint of being the first. What I was more concerned about was making sure that I did the best job that I possibly could and I knew that if I laid a
right foundation, and I’ve always said, if you level the playing field, we can perform just like everybody else. But it’s really about having an opportunity…
Damola Idowu: Exactly.
Thomas Moorehead: …whether I am African-American or anything else, and you can do the same.
Damola Idowu: Exactly.
Thomas Moorehead: It’s all about getting an opportunity to get your foot in the door.
Damola Idowu: And that’s it.
Thomas Moorehead: And that’s it. Alright, if you have an opportunity to get your foot in the door, once you get in that door, you cannot fail.
Damola Idowu: Exactly.
Thomas Moorehead: And that’s what I tell all the people around me. When you get entrusted with a brand, you’ve got do everything in your power to make sure you – that you’re the best dealer that could ever walk on this earth. And if you look yourself in the mirror each and every day and feel like you’ve accomplished that, then you’re going to be successful. The other thing is, is making sure that you keep God in your life.
Damola Idowu: Exactly.
Thomas Moorehead: If God stays in your life and helps you, then you’re going to be alright.
Damola Idowu: Another thing that we also observed, and we’ve been screaming it from high mountains, 20 percent plus of Rolls-Royce buyers were African-Americans – a lot of athletes, young people. We’ve been writing about them. We’ve been featuring them. We featured, whether it’s Outcast…I could go on and on down the line of football players that have that. So to me, when you look at the data, it’s a long time coming for what you have achieved to be in existence, because a large part of the customer base, substantial part of the customer base, came from people that were similar to you or came from similar backgrounds to yourself.
Thomas Moorehead: Well, one of the things that we have to look at is, we have to take care of the customers, whether it is the individual who works in the factory, who honestly wants to drive one of the finest automobiles in the world or the individual who plays ball who obviously wants to drive or the business person who’s out there. It’s about the person themselves. We don’t differentiate; we try to take care of everybody. If you walk through our door, we take you seriously and we’re here to serve you. And that’s the only reason that we’re in business so without them, we might as well lock our doors. So, taking care of the boss, Mr. and Mrs. Customer is the real key…
Damola Idowu: Exactly. And just in conclusion, the new Dawn – just kind of give us – and how people could find your dealership online.
Thomas Moorehead: Well, the new Dawn is going to be a great product for us. It is certainly going to allow us to have people see just how great Rolls-Royce really is. You will love it. The general public will love it. Right now, the first year of sales are all sold out, but 2017, we’re taking orders for them now and I’d like to get yours on the list. Okay?
Damola Idowu: Alright.
Thomas Moorehead: Alright. Thank you.