From nanny to lumber firm CEO: Lita Abele's story

When Isabelita “Lita” Marcelo Abele’s daughter was 6 years old and her son barely a year, Abele, a college-educated teacher, left her children with her parents in the Philippines and moved to the United States to work as a cleaning lady, nanny, and housekeeper.

Abele’s story is an American one, showing how an immigrant who came to this country with nothing now runs a business — in her case, U.S. Lumber Inc., in Woodbury Heights. As president and chief executive, Abele, now 65, leads a company that supplies lumber to subcontractors, has 12 employees, and had sales of $7.8 million in 2016.

In the Philippines, “my salary was not enough for me to raise my two children and send them to college,” Abele said. “So I applied to Europe, to Saudi Arabia, to Iran, everywhere, as a domestic helper, because to get out of the country, that’s what you have to do — domestic helper.”

Abele found work in New York. Isolated, unable to use the phone or leave the house, she felt trapped because she had no options. “I didn’t know anybody and didn’t know how to use public transportation,” Abele said. “I didn’t have a bedroom. I slept in the den on a couch. My clothes were in my suitcase. My plate and my spoon were in the cabinet under the sink.”

A neighbor helped her join a better employer, but her life really changed when she met and married Merrill Leslie Abele, owner of a lumber business in South Jersey. He brought her children over, set her up in a related business, and then merged his business into hers, putting her in charge of the combined enterprise.

“In the very beginning,” she said, “I was nervous about my accent, that nobody would understand me. I felt embarrassed because one of our customers embarrassed me around men. I used to cry because of my accent. They would make a joke, make fun. Then after a while I said to myself, `I can speak three languages: English; the Philippine language, Tagalog; and a little Spanish.’ Can you speak three languages?’ ”

Did you say that to the person?

No. When they embarrassed me in the beginning, I would just smile and pretend it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me inside. And what I did is, I turned that negative to a positive. So, now, I say to my customers — prospective, present, and past — “Now you will never forget me. When you hear my voice, you’re going to say, `Oh, that’s Lita from U.S. Lumber. Let me place my order right now.’ ”

Then what happens?

They laugh. So, you make something like a joke.

You turned it into a sales pitch. Plus, you retrieved your dignity. Humor is a business strategy for you. Explain how you handle collecting money from your customers.

When you do a collection, you have to be firm. You have to be friendly, but get your point across. I say to them, “Don’t tell me that the check is in the mail. Talk to me, but don’t lie to me, because we have to work together.” Then when I receive the check, I call them and I say, “Oh, thank you very much. I received your check. Now, I’m coming to pick you up and go shopping.” They start laughing.

How did you keep from being discouraged in your darkest moments?

I reminded myself of my dreams. Determination. I didn’t want to go back. When I’m down now and want to give up, I think about my children and grandchildren. I want to see my grandchildren educated. And now my dream is to make enough money, so I can donate to something. I want to leave a legacy. Also I pray. My customers are included in my prayers, that they get jobs.

Any advice for people going into business?

If you want to open a business, open one that you know. When you open the business, you have to have strong determination, persistence, perseverance, common sense.

What do you do to relax?

I go downstairs to our lower level and do karaoke. After karaoke, I’ll be dancing by myself.

What’s on the Lita Abele hit parade?

“My Way,” “Hello Dolly,” “Diana.”

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.

 

ISABELITA "LITA" MARCELO ABELE:

Home: Mullica Hill.

Family: Husband, Merrill "Les"; children, Romilett Yulo, Ryan Marcelo.

Diploma: San Pablo Colleges, Philippines, education.

Childhood dream: To be a nurse.

U.S. LUMBER INC.:

Business: Supplier to subcontractors.

Where: Woodbury Heights.

Dollars: $7.8 million in revenues, 2016.

Employees: 12, including her daughter and son-in-law.