Thomas Moorehead: Building a Legacy in Luxury Cars

by Eboni T. Thomas

First African American Lamborghini, McLaren and Rolls-Royce Dealer in the United States Paves the Way for Future Minority Auto Dealers

Thomas Moorehead, President and CEO of Sterling Motorcars, has entered his 36th year as a trailblazer in the automotive industry. He became the world’s first African American Lamborghini and McLaren dealer in the history of both brands in 2016 and the world’s first African American Rolls-Royce dealer in 2013. His brands also include BMWs, MINI Coopers and formerly Harley Davidsons.

Sterling Motorcars is now the leading provider of new and preowned luxury cars in the Mid-Atlantic region, with five locations in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Southern Pennsylvania, which generated $623.2 million in revenue in 2018. We recently caught up with Moorehead to find out what’s next for his automotive empire and what drives his passion to excel in this market.

Thomas Moorehead’s new and pre-owned luxury brands include BMW of Sterling, MINI of Sterling, Lamborghini Sterling, McLaren Sterling and Rolls-Royce Motorcars Sterling.

“I want to see another person who looks like me become a RollsRoyce dealer or a young lady become the first [female] McLaren, Lamborghini, BMW or MINI dealer,” Moorehead said. “A lot of us buy the products. But we don’t have a lot of dealers who represent those brands that look like us. I understand I’m the first, but I don’t want to be the last.”

Stellar customer service

Moorehead noted how some of the upper echelon of car enthusiasts don’t drive them every day. “But when they do decide to come out, they feel proud and happy,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I have now finally arrived.’ We like to create what I call that ‘wow’ moment for them.”

At Sterling Motorcars, they drape each car in a black cloth with a bow and the lights on underneath. Salespeople all wear white gloves and slowly pull the cloth off. Each customer receives a champagne toast, flowers for some, and a flash drive of the recorded event set to music to relive their “wow” moment.

The CEO of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, once visited the US and witnessed such a delivery. Moorehead had the hood of the customer’s car lifted and asked him to sign and date it. That customer has since bought three Rolls-Royces but will not sell the one Mr. Müller-Ötvös signed. As a result of that visit, Moorehead’s unveiling style has apparently been adopted abroad.

Diversity and Inclusion are key ingredients to Moorehead’s success with Sterling Motors from the service bays to the board room.

Recognizing the customer as “the boss” in his stores, Moorehead doesn’t mind taking a “back seat” or even being mistaken for a salesman. “Sometimes I go to an announcement show, and I just want to be in the background,” he explained. “I allow my managers to be out front because it is not about Tom Moorehead and who’s the owner; it’s about giving people the best service they have ever received.”

From the city of Monroe

Because of his own humble beginnings in Monroe, Louisiana, education and corporate citizenship are very important to Moorehead. His parents’ and grandparents’ vision of success was for him to be a first-generation college graduate, obtain a teaching degree and come back to become a principal at a school. But observing a local dentist and a pharmacist inspired him to become a business owner.

His grandfather said they didn’t have the money to support him pursuing that dream and thought the foundation of education would allow him to go farther. But Moorehead held fast. So, his grandfather conceded with this advice, “Make sure you go into business with a product that people have to have: a place to sleep, a car to drive and food to eat.”

Moorehead bought his first car from a junkyard – a Plymouth that cost $35 – which he had repainted, added seat covers and recapped whitewall tires. “That took me to Grambling College, where I got my undergraduate degree,” he chuckled. “That’s all I could afford, and that’s what sparked my interest in cars.”

To the Motor City

After he graduated, Moorehead moved to Detroit and spent his early career at Mobile and Chrysler Corporations. His mentor and fraternity brother, James Bradley, who persuaded him to go into the auto industry, also influenced him to be humble and charitable. He advised, “The only time you should be on a billboard or in a commercial is when you are giving back to your community.”

Moorehead heeded his words. He is committed to philanthropy, along with his wife Joyce, through The Joyce and Thomas Moorehead Foundation. Since its inception in 2004, the foundation has given nearly $6 million in scholarship and emergency relief to well-deserving high school and college students, working families and non-profit organizations in Northern Virginia and across the country.

He also heeded his grandfather’s advice in two of the three business suggestions. He and Joyce invested in the hospitality industry and now own a portfolio of 45+ hotels throughout the country. In 2007, Moorehead was the only local minority investor/owner in the Marriott Residence Inn at the National Harbor Resort and Convention Center in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Moorehead regularly interacts with employees to maintain solid performance for customer
satisfaction.

Paying it forward

Moorehead once asked Bradley how he could repay him for all his mentorship, to which he replied, “… by reaching back to help someone else get to their dream.”

A revered mentor to hundreds of African Americans interested in careers in the automobile industry, Moorehead has helped many athletes and celebrities, including actor Morris Chestnut. He said Chestnut demonstrated a serious willingness to learn the business. He even initiated their first phone discussion at 5 a.m. (LA time), used to rising early to work out and be on the set by 6:30 a.m. “He and some other individuals I’ve helped have done well,” Moorehead shared, “and now own their own dealerships.”

Another good friend of Moorehead’s is baseball legend Hank Aaron. “He got his BMW store the same time as I got mine,” he recalled. “One thing we pledged to each other is that we would try to get young men and women who look like us to come work in our stores and truly help them learn the business and make sure they had all the credentials they need to qualify for a dealership.”

When Moorehead served as chairman of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, they launched a program called The Next Generation. “For those of us who are maturing, we need to make sure we are able to backfill and properly prepare the next generation for the challenges they face going forward,” he explained. “That’s one thing I will look back on and say, ‘We did a good job.’”

Moorehead leads by example and encourages his team to follow his model to bring people
up and to give back.

Succession planning

Moorehead shared he had been looking for someone who really understands the cyclical nature of the automotive industry to mentor as his successor. “It’s great when everything is going well, but when times get tough, you have to be able to do all the things necessary to survive the downturns,” he said. He found that demonstrated business acumen and strong track record in Paul White, President of AutoNation’s Dallas-Fort Worth market, whom he has appointed as the new CEO of Sterling Motorcars.

He will remain chairman and owner of the dealership and said he’s looking to add a couple of franchises to the Mid-Atlantic region. Another new addition is the Sterling Motorcars Pre-owned Exotic Toy Store, which matches luxury car buyers with used highend vehicles within their budget.

“Sometimes, when we think something is out of our reach, it’s all in how hard you want to work for it. Working smart and investing your money wisely will allow you to reach your goals and be able to do the things that will bring you and your family joy,” he advised. “You have to be patient and make sure to do your due diligence and don’t allow your ego to get in front of your good business judgement. I always look to God for guidance.”

Moorehead said his wife keeps him grounded. “She likes to fish, and I do as well,” he shared. “Being out on the water really helps me to unwind.” They have two children, and two of their grandchildren are pursuing a Ph.D. and Law degree. They also have a younger grandchild who recently started walking. “I really enjoy watching them and helping my children,” he said. “That’s what I smile about most of all.”

Moorehead’s numerous achievements include: Washington metropolitan area Top 100 Business Award by Washington Business Journal; Best of the Best Black Business Award and Dealer of the Year (2007) by Black Enterprise; National Association of Automobile Dealers nominee for Time magazine Dealer of Year award; Top 25 Minority Business Leaders by Washington Business Journal; and Morehouse 2014 College Candle in the Dark Business Award.

Thomas Moorehead’s Career Highlights

  • Earned B.S.B.A. in Economics, Grambling University [1966]
  • Earned Master of Social Work, University of Michigan [1971]
  • Accepted position as Director of Community Service, U of M [1972]
  • Selected for prestigious General Motors Dealer Training Program, 12 hours/6 credits short of earning doctoral degree at U of M [1985]
  • Spent three years at dealership acquiring skills necessary for success [1983-1985]
  • Launched own dealership: Moorehead Buick/BMW/Isuzu, Omaha, Nebraska [1988]
  • Sold Omaha store and opened Moorehead Buick-GMC Trucks in Decatur, Illinois
  • Launched national sales campaign and rental car contracts/earned elite status among African American automobile dealers [1995]
  • Acquired number one foreign luxury car, BMW brand, when National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers (NAMAD) was seeking new dealership sites/minority dealer candidates for BMW and awarded him one of just three sites [1998]
  • Established Sterling Motorcars [2002]
  • Established The Joyce and Thomas Moorehead Foundation [2004]
  • Became first African American owner of hotel at National Harbor of Prince George’s County, Maryland [2007]
  • Became world’s first African American Rolls-Royce dealer [2013]
  • Served as a Chairman of NAMAD [2013 to 2015]
  • Acquired Harley-Davidson of Washington, DC [2014]
  • Became world’s first African American Lamborghini and McLaren dealer in history of both brands [2016]
  • Received three honorary degrees from Grambling State University, Bethune Cookman University and Lawrence University in Virginia
  • Served two terms on Federal Reserve Board for Tenth District of Kansas City
  • Served on VA Dealers Board n Serve with wife Joyce as members of Board of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

 

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