Isabelita “Lita” Abele, the CEO of Woodbury Heights, N.J.-based U.S. Lumber Co., has a simple formula for success: Be persistent, be honest and remember the gatekeeper.
That’s probably because the petite dynamo with the Filipina accent has been mistaken for the gatekeeper at her family’s lumber company, not its CEO.
Abele’s husband, Merrill “Les” Abele, 82, founded the precursor to U.S. Lumber in 1974. About 10 years later, he met Lita at a restaurant in Boston. His eye caught the petite Filipina dining with a girlfriend. Lita Marcelo, who was working as a nanny for a family in Maine, was in Boston for a short vacation. Les and Lita kept looking at each other until, finally, the friend invited him to sit down.
“He called twice a day, sent a dozen roses a week, then visited Maine every other week. He courted me in the Philippine way. He asked my parents’ permission to marry me. And my employer had to approve him!”
Had they not, she might not have married him, Lita says with a laugh. She and Les still regularly visit her former employers — both physicians — and all their children are friends.
Les recognized his wife’s instinctive talent. Lita, who had been a schoolteacher in the Philippines, took to sales like a fish to water. Les wanted her to work alongside him, so he taught her everything else she needed to know about the construction lumber business: the various kinds of woods, the suppliers, pricing, invoicing, collections and so forth.
Lita, now 68, took over as CEO in January 1993, when Les semi-retired. Since then, the company has grown to about $10 million in annual sales. With the exception of its leased truck drivers, all employees are family members. In addition to Lita and Les, who still works part-time, Lita’s daughter Romilett Yulo, 45, is the office manager and her husband, Marvin Yulo, 43, is the yard foreman. Marvin and Romilett’s younger son, Kyle, 17, works at the company after school. Their older son, Brandon, left the business in 2018 to join the Coast Guard — following the example set by his uncle Jeff Yulo, Marvin’s brother, who worked at the yard before joining the Navy.
A nephew and niece also have jobs at the company. Romilett’s brother Ryan Marcelo, 40, was employed there for a time but left 10 years ago.
When Lita took over as CEO, some former employees — all male — bristled.
“I have different rules, and I laid out expectations and they didn’t like it,” she says bluntly.
A woman in a man’s world
In such a strongly male-dominated field as construction, it’s not surprising that customers might assume Lita is the CEO’s assistant, not the CEO.
“My accent is my asset. I used to cry when people would criticize me, but I thought about it and said, ‘OK, how many Americans speak three languages?’ ” Lita, who taught high school history and language in the Philippines, speaks Spanish, English and Tagalog.
“I turned that to advantage and turned my accent into a sales tool. Now when you hear my voice, you always say, ‘That’s Lita from U.S. Lumber!’ ”
She makes it a point not only to visit customers’ job sites, but also to introduce herself to the gatekeepers. Receptionists and assistants call her the “Kisses lady” because of the Hershey’s candy and Filipino treats she brings.
Lita’s skills are part of what grew the small company into a position of leadership among building materials suppliers in the Philadelphia tri-state area, but another factor in its success is her ability to take what normally would be a challenge and turn it into an opportunity. She targets federal, state and municipal projects with diversity requirements to use a certain number of minority- or female-owned contractors. (U.S. Lumber qualifies as both.)
The company has supplied materials for such notable projects as Lincoln Financial Field, where the Philadelphia Eagles play; Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies; some Atlantic City casinos and many of the area’s interstate highways. U.S. Lumber has also been involved in projects for Philadelphia Gas Works and PECO (the area’s power company).
Although diversity requirements might open the door, the company’s reputation for service keeps customers coming back. U.S. Lumber promises 24-hour turnaround for delivery in the tri-state area.
Lita also makes it a point not to put customers into voicemail. “When they call me, I’m always available. When they call Marvin, the yard foreman, he answers. When they text and need lumber tomorrow, it’s there.” Even when the company closes early, phones are forwarded so a human always picks up.
Contemplating the future
Although the company has had very few non-family employees and no outside salespeople since Lita took over, she acknowledges that may someday change.
Romilett prefers to remain in her role as office manager and bookkeeper rather than move into sales. Marvin is starting to accompany Lita on sales calls, but he enjoys being yard foreman.
Lita and Les are comfortable with Romilett and Marvin’s ability to run the company. They often will take a long vacation and leave the two in charge, but it’s clear that Lita is torn about the future. She doesn’t want to force her children into taking over if it’s not what they want, but she does want to see U.S. Lumber continue in the family. At present, only Lita and Les have ownership, she at 51% and he at 49%.
Lita already has quite a legacy to her credit. Having never lost her love for teaching, she’s a contributing author to four business books with a fifth on the way this summer. Both she herself and U.S. Lumber under her leadership have won multiple business awards, including her selection by the Filipina Women’s Network as one of the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women nationwide in 2009 and globally in 2017. She is a frequent participant in panel discussions and presentations and has served the boards of multiple community and business organizations.
Lita has no immediate plans to retire, preferring to live in the moment. As such, there’s no concrete transition plan in place for U.S. Lumber other than the classic “Someday all this will be yours.”
The answer may lie with G3. Kyle once jokingly pointed to Lita’s chair and announce his intention to someday sit in it. That may be more prescient than he knows, and Lita laughs that he might someday be his parents’ boss.
“But only if that’s what he wants to do,” says Romilett.
Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business.
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