Bernie Moreno's peculiar metamorphosis from luxury car dealer to leader of the Cleveland blockchain movement makes sense if you consider his beginnings. The starting-over gene is in him.
Moreno, 52, was born in Bogota, the capital of Colombia. His father, Bernie Moreno Sr., was an American-educated physician who held a federal government position equivalent to the U.S. secretary of health and human services. His mother, Marta Moreno, after attending college in California, was a community activist and businesswoman.
“We were privileged in South America,” Moreno says. “But my mom wanted to start all over in America. My dad didn’t like the idea, but he went along.”
When Moreno was 5, his parents gave up everything to move their family to Florida as immigrants in 1971. Initially, Moreno’s father labored as a hospital resident. On weekends, Marta sold Colombian trinkets at a flea market.
After a few years, Moreno’s father started his own practice and then went on to become chief of surgery at a Florida hospital. Marta had obtained a real estate license and opened her own real estate practice with three offices and more than 100 associates. The young Moreno took note.
“I learned two things from my parents,” Moreno says. “My dad told me there are no limits to what you can do. My mom said to have no fear.
“So, if you combine a delusion of grandeur with no fear, that’s what I do,” Moreno jokes.
At his peak in the luxury car industry, he owned 15 dealerships in Ohio, Florida, Kentucky and Massachusetts. He sold most of those businesses to start BlockLand, a campaign to make Cleveland a relevant tech city.
In his effort to promote blockchain — which uses cryptography to connect electronic records and transactions and keep them secure from hacking — Moreno organized dozens of Cleveland business, civic, philanthropic, educational and nonprofit leaders. He met many of them by serving on the boards of local nonprofits and educational institutions.
“I don’t consider myself a civic leader, more of a civic agitator,” Moreno laughs. “I want to give back to the community that gave so much to me. Most of the success I had happened in Cleveland. I want to make a difference here.
“I want to challenge the people who are in leadership positions to think bolder and think bigger,” Moreno says. “People aren’t as bold and impatient as they need to be.”
Moreno has turned over most of BlockLand to GCP’s Cleveland Innovation Project, which is studying several technologies, including blockchain and artificial intelligence, to determine which are worthy of business and nonprofit investment.
Meanwhile, the BlockLand campaign is organizing its second annual international conference. And Moreno, not one to stand still, has launched two new companies: Ownum, a tech company that will move car titling online using blockchain; and Drive Options, a car subscription service.
If that’s not enough, Moreno has helped convince Bedrock Detroit LLC, owner of The Avenue at Tower City, to develop that space into City Block, a center for entrepreneurship and startup companies.
Moreno says he doesn’t deserve induction into the Business Hall of Fame, but his friend Jon Pinney, managing partner of the Cleveland law firm Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, disagrees. Pinney was co-chair of a BlockLand committee.
“Bernie is a driven guy, a self-made entrepreneur who travels at the speed of light,” Pinney says. “I’m a big supporter of everything he is trying to do for Cleveland.”
Steven Santamaria, CEO of Folio Photonics Inc. in Solon, also co-chaired a BlockLand committee. He called Moreno an ambassador for Cleveland, representing the city’s interests.
“His ability to convert strategy into action is what sets him apart,” Santamaria says. “He doesn’t sit and talk about things. He goes out and gets things done. He doesn’t doubt himself, and he doesn’t debate.”
After graduating high school in Fort Lauderdale, Moreno earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Michigan. His goal was to become chairman of the board at General Motors. He started as an analyst at Saturn Corp. in 1989 and was promoted to field consultant.
In the early 1990s, Moreno met John Covell, who managed several car dealerships in Boston. The two became friends and Covell introduced Moreno to Herb Chambers, who owned 55 dealerships in Boston and Rhode Island.
“John told Herb that I wanted to leave Saturn, which was the opposite of the truth,” Moreno says.
But when Chambers offered Moreno a job as general manager of a Saturn dealership in Warwick, Rhode Island, Moreno, 25 at the time, said yes, even though he had never worked at a car dealership. He was ready for a change.
“I realized that I didn’t like the corporate world,” Moreno says. “It was too bureaucratic, with nonsensical meetings around conferences that didn’t need to happen. I liked the idea of entrepreneurship much better.”
Before long, Moreno was running most of Chambers’ luxury car dealerships, including those selling Mercedes, in Boston. Then, in 2005, Mercedes Benz USA asked Moreno directly to salvage a struggling North Olmsted dealership. Moreno moved to Cleveland and turned the business around.
“We priced the cars very aggressively, and although we made a lot less per car, we made it up in long-term client relationships,” Moreno says.
Then Moreno opened more dealerships. In 2015, his youngest son, Kevin, expressed interest in joining the family business. But Moreno didn’t see the retail car business surviving in its existing form, believing car subscription services would replace it. He looked for a new type of business, and that’s what led to creating digital car titles using blockchain.
Some wonder if Moreno’s frantic business activities are setting him up for a run in politics. But that makes him laugh.
“Thank God there are people who run for public office,” he says. “We have great people who do that, but that’s not me.”