E.E. Ward Is The Oldest Black-Owned Business In The U.S., And Its Owner Plans To Keep It That Way
"... we have a unique opportunity to evolve and extend the legacy to the next generations."
Brian Brooks and Dominique Reighard-Brooks have been married for nine years and they currently own the nation's oldest continuously operating Black-owned business E.E. Ward Moving & Storage.
E.E. Ward was an existing family run business for over 120 years. It officially launched in 1881 by John T. Ward and his son, William, with just two horses and a wagon. Prior to establishing the business in 1881, John T. Ward was also a conductor on the underground railroad. Brian’s father was a lawyer for the owner of the business, and after there was no family succession plan in place and no interest from other family to take it over, Brian purchased the business from Eldon W. Ward in 2001.
Brian and Dominique have strategically partnered with NASCAR hall of famer Richard Petty to be the official mover of Richard Petty Motorsports. Additionally, Dominique launched a new clothing line, 1881 Apparel, to further spread the empowering message of entrepreneurship.
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E.E. Ward has received several awards for its high level of service, philanthropic activities and business innovation. Awards include, but aren’t limited to, OMSDC MBE Supplier of The Year award, BBB of Central Ohio’s Torch Award (three of them), Pillar Awards for Community Service, Corporate Caring Human Services Award, Diversity In Business Award and the highly coveted Agent of The Year Service Excellence Award from the American Moving & Storage Association.
I had the opportunity to talk to Brian Brooks about acquiring E.E. Ward Moving & Storage and running a business with his wife. We discussed Black entrepreneurs and the importance of entrepreneurs being involved with their communities.
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How did you acquire E.E. Ward Moving & Storage?
My father was the lawyer for the business for over 20 years. After the owner took a less active role and moved to a warmer climate for health reasons, the family members left in charge became overwhelmed with the daily operation. The decision was made to either sell or close the business, and this was also in part to the lack of a succession plan. After learning of this, I began conversations with the owner, Eldon Ward, in 2000 which resulted in the eventual purchase in 2001.
We met through friends who were dating. The funny thing was they introduced us and then they broke up a short time later. The real "ah-ha" moment came when we realized our parents lived two blocks away from each other and my father handled some legal matters for her mother's business in years prior. Timing is everything!What made you decide to run a business with your wife?
My primary focus is always on talent. When you have great talent on your team, you have a higher probability of winning. When my wife made the decision to pivot away from being in front of the camera and expressed her desire to start working on several ventures, I saw an opportunity. Dominique had such a strong grasp of social media networking, production, marketing and brand image that I knew she could really help EE Ward go to new heights in online presence. So I made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: work with me every day on building our businesses future.If you had advice for couples who want to start a business together. What would it be?
My advice would be to make sure your number one goal is to value the time spent working together. There will be challenges and there will be triumphs, but these are opportunities to add a new dynamic to your relationship. For me, when we have challenges, I know I have a business partner who will stick with me until we overcome the challenge. When we triumph, it makes the win 10 times better because I am winning with my best friend and partner.
Are there any companies you would want to partner up with in the near future?
We are always looking for strategic opportunities. Currently we are evaluating some partnerships that could help expand our moving services platform.
Do you feel any pressure about running the oldest Black-owned business in America?
No, we really embrace it as a privilege. There is only one E.E. Ward legacy, and we have a unique opportunity to evolve and extend the legacy to the next generations.
Do you plan to pass the business on to your own children?
I want my children to have the option to seek any opportunities they are passionate about. However, I do not want them to feel pressured to pursue a path to please me. They are aware of E.E. Ward, they have much love and carry a lot of pride for the E.E. Ward legacy. We will see where E.E. Ward fits in their world as they get older.
What are some fun facts about E.E. Ward before you acquired it? What sparked your interest in doing so?
One fun fact is that at one time the company had delivered over 1 million pianos when the Ward Family held the Steinway & Co piano contract. In the 1820s, E.E. Ward founder John T. Ward was aiding and abetting runaways and housing slaves on his farm who were en route to freedom, as he was a conductor on the underground railroad. Ward also co-founded the anti-slavery baptist church in 1947, and, of course, E.E.Ward is the oldest continuously operating African American business in the country.Why do you think so many Black entrepreneurs sell their businesses?
It is very challenging to grow a business. So many business owners come to a crossroads when they find their business growing to be what they always dreamed it would be. This is when reality hits and one realizes the cost of growth. To fuel that growth one typically will take out loans or seek investments, but traditionally, Black entrepreneurs have had limited access to capital. Selling the business becomes the survival plan to move beyond the financial constraints. In addition to a lack of capital, many entrepreneurs are weak in creating succession plans and selling becomes a last resort exit plan.How important is it for entrepreneurs to give back and connect with their communities?
E.E. Ward was founded on the principles of giving back in 1881. To give back is how one completes the circle of entrepreneurship and creates a company’s culture. Many businesses like E.E. Ward have found their first success in their local communities — the first customer, the first dollar. It's only fitting that as a business grows and matures, businesses give back to help others. Giving back to the community and making an investment in people has sustained E.E. Ward going for 138 years. E.E.Ward is proof that a commitment to community engagement adds greater purpose to all the efforts that the company puts forth on a daily basis. Eldon Ward, who ran E.E. Ward for 50 years, would say, “The worth of life is how you live with other people, not how much money you make.”
My hero was my father. During his 50 years of practicing law, he was an experienced trial lawyer that fought and won many discrimination cases involving the civil rights movement and later became a judge. His commitment to his community was even acknowledged in a personal letter from the President at the time, Lyndon B Johnson, who expressed his personal gratitude and his support to all his endeavors. As a young boy, I recall asking him if he was nervous or scared because many of these cases were uphill battles, and even dangerous. But he would always tell me “there is nothing to fear, but fear itself.” I later learned that this quote was from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933. As I reminisce on my father’s legacy, I am truly inspired today as an entrepreneur and a Black man that “there is nothing to fear, but fear itself.”