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Thomas Moorehead rolls into the world of ultra-luxury

By Eric Easter/Urban News Service
On February 29, 2016

Thomas Moorhead, the first African American to own a Rolls Royce dealership, is located in Sterling, Virginia.
Credit: Andre Chung

The world’s first African-American Rolls Royce car dealer got there through hard work and perseverance, but only after disappointing his family.

Thomas Moorehead’s parents thought the key to respectability was to earn a Ph.D. Both teachers, they lived by an old-school axiom that the one thing you never can take away from a man is an education.

Yet, with just a few credits and a dissertation to go, Moorehead abandoned his doctoral program, and his parents’ wishes, for an uncertain shot at learning the automobile business from the bottom up.

It was a leap of faith, an offer from a fraternity brother and mentor – James Bradley, of Bradley Automotive Group – who promised to make Moorehead a millionaire in five years, if he took the risk. But it wasn’t the promise that attracted Moorehead: “Teaching was a guarantee of a long career, but I always had a passion for business,” said Moorehead.

His road to success required two years of apprenticeship with Bradley, the mortgaging of his home and the depletion of his savings to enter a training program; it then eventually required owning his first dealership, selling Buicks in Omaha, Nebraska.

Moorehead built a strong reputation as someone dedicated to customer service – an essential value of the Rolls Royce brand. That reputation, and his sales record as owner of Sterling BMW in Virginia, sparked an invitation from Rolls Royce Motor Cars to join the exclusive club of only 33 dealers and 130 dealerships around the globe – an opportunity he accepted without hesitation.

The new store, Rolls Royce Motor Cars of Sterling, is the sole Rolls Royce dealership in greater Washington, D.C. and covers much of the mid-Atlantic – from Virginia to southern Pennsylvania. It sits just across from Sterling BMW and Mini – his other successful dealership – a fact that fills him with immense pride.

“These are the best cars in the world, and I’m honored to be able to bring them to my customers,” said Moorehead as he looked across the lot.

His dealerships thrive in one of the region’s wealthiest communities, filled with prosperous government contractors, newly minted millionaires from tech start-ups and the Washington Redskins’ nearby training facility.

In a world where demanding buyers are known to add millions of dollars’ worth of custom details to their cars to reflect their personalities (fur-lined shoe-holders, built-in picnic baskets, crystal cufflink holders), Moorehead’s low-key manner is a studied contrast – a contrast he believes helps him sell more cars. “I can talk about the features of the cars all day but, ultimately, people are buying good service,” said Moorehead.

At age 71, Moorehead still relies on the daily advice of mentors, who include Hall of Fame home-run great (now car dealer) Hank Aaron and former National Urban League president John Jacob. He calls them “instrumental” in shaping his business’s success.

“They marked their careers by quietly getting the job done, but also being the best at what they do,” he said.

While giving a tour of his office, Moorehead seems slightly embarrassed as he points to pictures of himself with presidents Obama and Clinton and an array of famous business leaders. That changes when he points out two items of which he’s most proud.

The Laurel Wreath Award, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity’s highest honor for lifetime achievement.

And then something much less distinct: a small cardboard sign that lists more than a dozen vendors who, he says, have contributed to his achievements – architects, decorators, contractors, cleaning-service owners and even the guy who printed the sign.

All are African Americans, and fraternity brothers, people for whom he has paid forward the gift that Bradley gave him.

“This is really what it’s all about,” said Moorehead, “bringing other people up and giving something back.”

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