Going Against the Grain
CEO Embraces Adversity and Diversity
A petite 4-foot, 11-inch Filipina clad in a sharp business suit and designer high heels strides confidently toward a group of male construction workers and boldly asks, “Who’s in charge here? I need to discuss a business proposition.” Most people would not guess that this self-assured President and CEO of U.S. Lumber Inc., Isabelita “Lita” (Marcelo) Abele, was once a school teacher struggling to make ends meet in the Philippines, and also a mistreated housekeeper held against her will in New York City.
Today, thanks to personal grit and perseverance, Lita is living the American Dream as she runs a multimillion-dollar U.S. corporation based in the borough of Woodbury Heights in southern New Jersey. What’s more, she’s been recognized nationally and internationally as a generous, forward-thinking Asian-American businesswoman, having won numerous awards for her roles in philanthropy and leadership.
But how does someone who comes from practically nothing achieve so much, and against incredible odds? For Lita, a spirit of determination gave her the courage to rise above adversity.
A Journey of Ambition and Fortitude
Lita was born to an impoverished family in San Pablo, one of the oldest cities in the Laguna province of the Philippines. Raised in a tight-knit household with three older siblings, as a child Lita loved games of pretend play and often imagined herself a successful businesswoman living a life of affluence in America. Those dreams stayed with her when she later worked as a teacher at a Catholic high school, trying to earn enough money to support her relatives, including two of her own young children. In 1981, to provide a better life for her loved ones, she made the hard choice to leave her family and take a job as a maid and nanny for a Filipino family in New York.
This supposed “great opportunity” quickly turned into a nightmarish struggle as Lita fought to escape verbally and psychologically abusive employers who held her against her will and worked her night and day. After several months of confinement, she fled to a friend’s home.
Let’s fast-forward 35 years to the present. Lita is now reunited with her children, Romilett Marcelo-Yulo and Ryan Marcelo, and has five grandchildren (eight if you include the three great-nephews she also calls her grandkids). With the support of her husband and minority-percentage business partner, Merrill Abele, she directs U.S. Lumber, a certified woman- and minority-owned lumber and building materials supplier that caters to a diverse array of clients throughout New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“Before he was my husband, Merrill started the company in 1974 as Silver Lake Lumber Co. We married in 1984 and he encouraged me to learn the business. I also went to school at night and studied accounting and computers,” says Lita.
In 1985, she launched a lumber brokerage company, U.S. Lumber and Plywood Corp., which grew to $2.7 million in sales within seven years. Merrill’s business, however, hit some rough times; by 1992, he planned to sell it off and take an early retirement. His wife suggested he sell off as much of the company as he could and then let her company take over the rest, with him still involved as a 49 percent owner and she at 51 percent. The companies merged in 1993 into U.S. Lumber.
Now 23 years since the merger, U.S. Lumber grosses
$8 million in sales and supplies pressure-treated framing lumber and plywood to the tri-state area using its own fleet of trucks. Its client list includes high-profile customers, such as Boeing, DuPont Co., Exelon’s PECO Energy, Merck & Co., and Philadelphia Gas Works. The firm’s products have been used in multiple noteworthy projects, including several Atlantic City casinos in New Jersey, the Philadelphia Eagles stadium and the Philadelphia Phillies ballpark in Pennsylvania, One World Trade Center in New York, and Morey’s Piers & Beachfront Water Parks in Wildwood, New Jersey.
“Our tagline is ‘We’re fast, we’re reliable, we care.’ This is our standard for how we conduct ourselves professionally,” says Lita. The hands-on CEO adds, “I follow up on every order personally to make sure that our clients’ needs are completely satisfied.”
STRENGTH TO GO AGAINST the Grain
One of the most important business lessons that Lita has learned is to “never be afraid to tackle any job.” In addition to Filipino roots anchored in determination and perseverance, sheer resilience courses through Lita’s veins, giving her the stamina to rise above challenges—past and present. “My culture and heritage gave me the strength to move away from distractions, to embrace struggle, and to go against the grain to build relationships with my employees and clients,” she says.
But building relationships and trust with others hasn’t always been easy. In the male-dominated building and construction trade, Lita’s gender and accent are off-putting to some.
“For many years, I struggled with the challenge of people misunderstanding me due to my accent. Some clients and vendors would make negative comments about my accent and use of language. I was humiliated many times, but I never let them get to me,” says Lita. “Instead, I saw their insults as a challenge to read, to immerse myself in new ideas and information, and to expand my knowledge of the industry. I became more confident in my industry knowledge, and I learned to keep my manner, resolve and integrity intact when dealing with those types of people.”
Lita views her accent now as a gift—a calling card, she says, that sets her apart from the competition.
“This is one area of many where I turned a negative situation into a positive one. I take pride in knowing that my voice can never be mistaken for someone else’s. Clients and friends always know right away who I am when I call them,” she says. “I fully embrace my diversity now, and am proud to share my culture with others whenever I have the chance.”
Breaking down cultural barriers has become an integral part of this proud Filipina’s way of life.
An Influential Leader in Business and Community
As the lead salesperson at U.S. Lumber, Lita works tirelessly to position her company as a regional leader in sales. She has been known to pound the pavement as she seeks to build relationships with new customers and to check on existing customers’ needs. While her physical presence on jobsites is a testament to her exceptional work ethic, it is her involvement in the community that has garnered the attention of many.
“I’ve always loved learning and teaching others, and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had living here in America. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with others, mentoring other women and Filipino Americans who are starting businesses, and helping high school and college students. Giving back to others is my way of showing my appreciation for all of my blessings in life,” shares Lita.
Lita and her firm have been honored by many regional, state, national and international business and community advocacy organizations. Suffice it to say that Lita’s reputation as a philanthropist and progressive business leader has made an impression on her colleagues and customers.
“What I enjoy most about my career is helping people and meeting different kinds of people in the field. Our clients are our best assets, and doing our best service will enhance our success in business,” says Lita.