The local businessman makes automotive history as the first African American to own a Rolls-Royce dealership in the United States.
Thomas Moorehead remembers his first car — a $35 Plymouth from a junkyard down the street from where he grew up in Monroe, La. It was the car that would take him out of the small town and on to college at Grambling State University where, against the advice of his father (who said he didn’t have the money to embark on a risky career path and wouldn’t support him), young Moorehead majored in business. Little did they know, the defiant son would later make automotive history as the first African American to own a Rolls-Royce franchise in the U.S., selling luxury vehicles that range from around $250,000 to $550,000.
“I didn’t go into the car business until I was 40,” the dynamic dealer told us when we visited his pristine Rolls-Royce Motor Cars of Sterling headquarters, one of only 120 Rolls-Royce franchises worldwide and just across the street from his BMW of Sterling, the largest minority-owned BMW dealership in the country. Before his fraternity brother and lifelong mentor James Bradley, or “Mr. B” as Moorehead calls him, recruited him to work at Bradley Automotive Group, Moorehead was a professor of social work at the University of Michigan and two classes short of a Ph.D. in urban planning.
Moorehead, 71, chuckles as he recalls those early days and the unfair perception of car dealers.
“That guy standing at the door smoking cigarettes, wearing stretch knit pants and a big plaid jacket, talking fast — that just wasn’t me,” he says. “I told Mr. B, ‘I need to finish this Ph.D.,’ but he said, if you come with me I will teach you all the nuances of the car business and you’ll be a millionaire in five years. My ears perked up.”
To the shock of his family and friends, Moorehead took the risk. He quit his Ph.D. program and left teaching to sell cars in Ann Arbor. Before his first year was over, he was the highest-grossing salesman at the dealership. “I shoveled snow, I worked in the body shop, in the office. I sat in every seat there and it helped.”
Moorehead then became one of three out of 300 applicants accepted to General Motors’ prestigious pilot dealership training program. Upon graduation, he opened his first dealership in Omaha, Neb. in 1987. Fast forward to 2001, when he moved his family to Sterling to open the only Rolls-Royce franchise servicing Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, the District and most of Pennsylvania. Moorehead saw great potential in one of the wealthiest counties in the country where “there’s a lot of quiet money and people with very discriminating taste.”
A quick tour shows that his customers are not the only ones with discriminating taste. Moorehead clearly provides the best of everything in his dealerships, from the top-notch artwork he commissions and the one-touch iPad cappuccino maker to the floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto the street so guests can mingle easily during receptions and cocktail parties. He admits that he recently allocated $25 million for renovations to the BMW store.
“I might have gone a bit overboard,” he says with a laugh. “But if you try to cut corners and don’t do it right, it comes back to haunt you. I’m a real stickler on wanting things to look a certain way and I think that’s really important because that’s how people perceive you.”
The focus, he says, should always be on the customer; he’s been known to send homemade coffee cakes to clients whenever the dealership makes even a minor error.
“I don’t want to see a frown on your face when you walk out of here,” he says. “The boss in the store is not Tom Moorehead, it’s his customer. If we lose sight of that, we might as well close our doors. In fact, I used to stamps all of my checks with ‘compliments of the boss’ and it said ‘Mr. and Mrs. Customer.’”
When he’s not working hard to make “the boss” happy, Moorehead spends time with his two children and works with his wife Joyce, a former attorney, on their foundation, which provides scholarships to students in their junior and senior years of college. They are active with Lift Me Up, a therapeutic horse riding program in Great Falls as well as other charities and boards. Moorehead also served as chairman of the board of the National Association of Minority Auto Dealers. He has invested in 43 hotels across the country and recently purchased a Harley Davidson dealership.
But even now, after far exceeding that million-dollar goal his mentor promised years ago, the humble Southerner doesn’t drive a Rolls-Royce, although his wife did surprise him with one for Christmas a few years back.
“I told her, I can’t drive that,” he says. “For me, a young fellow out of Monroe, Louisiana, I really don’t get caught up on what I drive.”
This story first appeared in the Holiday 2015 issue of Washington Life.