How a former nanny learned to run a lumber company

Lita Abele, 65, President and CEO of U.S. Lumber in Woodbury Heights.

In the Philippines, where Isabelita “Lita” Marcelo Abele grew up, she dreamed of being a nurse. Instead, after graduating from college and not earning enough as a teacher to raise her children, she saved up all her money, got a visa and came to the United States as a nanny, housekeeper and cleaning lady. Nearly every dime she made went back to the Philippines where her earnings helped her own children, plus an extended family.

Now Abele, 65, runs a lumber company, U.S. Lumber Inc., in Woodbury Heights, where she employs a dozen people, and, she said, generated $7.8 million in sales in 2016.

So how did a Filipino nanny get to be the chief executive and president?

Some of it was luck: While still working as a domestic, but going to school at night, she became friends with a young woman, who took her on a trip. That’s where she met her future husband, Merrill “Les” Abele, the owner of a lumber company in New Jersey. Her husband helped her bring her children to the U.S. and he would have financed her dream to be a nurse, but…

“Science and I don’t get along,” she said. Her Filipino diploma got her through most of her credits at Gloucester County Community College, but she still had to take science and mathematics. And that’s where her dream came to an end, and her husband’s dream started.

“So, my husband’s dream is always to work with his wife,” Abele told me during our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. “He said to me, `Okay, so, being a nurse is out of the question now.  Why don’t you go with me in the office and learn the business?’

“So, I came here as his employee, but the bad part, the employees doesn’t want me here as the boss’s wife.  But, it did not stop us.  It did not stop me.

“My first desk is a typewriter desk in that corner.  The first job is answering the phone.  Oh, my God, I’m so scared because of my accent. So, I have my yellow pad and every phone call that is incoming, I write down the name, the company name, the person whom they want to talk to and the line.  Then in the night I will read it over and over again until I will memorize the name and put that name with a voice.

Is that how you got to know all the customers very well? What was next?

I got to know the customers.  Then, my husband says, `I will now teach you how to pick your lumber.  How to figure out lumber, how to price lumber.’

How did he do that?

So, at nighttime, when we get home, it’s the yellow pad.  He will make a copy of the invoice.  He will erase [the numbers]. He teaches me on the yellow pad how to figure square foot, how to figure its price, a linear foot and its price, the board foot and  its price.  Then he will write in a yellow pad, `Okay, give me a price on this.’ I will figure its price.  I did that.  So, I passed that.

After I passed that, now I have to do an invoice.  Like a customer call and say I want to price 30 sheets of plywood.  He will price it as a square foot.  He will price it as a linear foot.  He will price it as a board foot.  Now I have to figure out how to turn those into a price, and how its price by linear foot, by board foot and by square foot.  Then he told me, `All right, you learned how to do the invoicing, how to figure lumber. When a customer calls, you can take an order,’ because I learned all the terminology of the lumber.

Then what?

So, now, I take orders.  Before we didn’t have a computer, so I would type it. Then he would check it.  So, the invoicing is done.  Now, he told me, `All right. Now you learn how to do the sales journal.’  So, he had a bookkeeper.  The bookkeeper showed me once how to post the sales journal.  All I know is all self-taught, or through my husband.

Then, I become responsible for account receivables.

Getting paid. Very important.

Getting paid.  But, I don’t know how to collect money.  But, in business, or being a business woman, you don’t need to study a lot in school, just common sense.  I use practicality.  I will call the company that doesn’t want to pay, I will say, `You used my lumber already, so I need to get paid.’  But, nobody taught me that.  That’s the practicality and common sense.

So, I get used to all the office work, become familiarized.  Then my husband would pick me up and take me to the job site, and I will listen to him.  That’s how I learned how to sell the lumber, by listening and by observing.  So, when I know the office work, I know the terminology, I start the sales.

What’s it like to be a woman in the construction business in general?

In general, first I am nervous when I start doing it.  Then, as I do it, I become comfortable.  I become like one of them.  Now it’s natural to me, not a big deal, because I enjoy the sales.  I enjoy visiting the job site.  I enjoy talking to our customer.  I enjoy that, because customer service is priority to U.S. Lumber.

In the very beginning, I’m intimidated with going to the men, to the trailer. Little, by little, it’s natural to me.  The more you say, `No’ to me, the more I will come and call you, until I get an order from you.

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