Career fueled by desire to achieve

Top Women Interview Series: A New Jersey success story.
Lita Abele, president and CEO, U.S. Lumber.

Lita Abele’s journey to the corner office stands out as an LBM success story with several plot twists. She arrived in the U.S in 1981 as an immigrant from the Philippines, taking jobs as house cleaner and nanny. Drawing from her inner strength — and unlikely inspiration from a bold character in a prime-time soap opera — Abele followed her dream to own a business. She learned the ropes of the lumber industry from her husband (Merrill Abele, now semi-retired), and is now pulling the strings as president and CEO of U.S. Lumber, an industrial and commercial supplier based in Woodbury Heights, N.J.

U.S. Lumber serves New Jersey and surrounding states.

From its modest 3.5-acre yard across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the certified minority- and woman-owned business has supplied a number of high-profile projects in the tri-state area, from the Freedom Tower in New York City to Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Hers is the kind of story that audiences love to cheer: the rise of the goal-oriented, highly determined outsider and the triumph of the construction-industry underdog. And during the recent Top Women in Hardware & Building Supply event, the audience responded with shouts and applause when she described her determination during the early years.

In a recent interview with HBSDealer, Abele shared thoughts on her career as well as advice for others. “I am a dreamer,” she said. “I had a goal. And my goal was to be my own boss. I really wanted to have my own business. And that was always in my mind.”

She describes her journey to success as being fueled by effort and will power. She taught herself much of what she knows about business. And she received a little inspiration from a popular TV show.

"I have just four answers: work hard, persistence, determination and common sense. I share that to everyone."
Lita Abele

“I remember watching that show 'Dynasty' and especially Joan Collins,” Abele said. “I liked the way she conducted herself. She had style. Her character was mean sometimes, and I don’t want that. But I liked her style, and every time I saw that, I thought to myself: I want to be a businesswoman and a boss.”

Abele’s persistence and personality were revealed in the details of a story she shared during a presentation at the Top Women event in Chicago

“A prospective customer didn’t want to give me any time at all, no time. They would just close the door. So I said, ‘OK, what time will the superintendent come to the site?' They said, 'Six o’clock.' So, before six o’clock, I am already at the site. So when I got there, he cannot say, he’s not there. I just forced myself to the door. And I said, 'Just give me five minutes. Not even five minutes, three minutes.' I just introduce myself, I gave my card, a [U.S. Lumber] pad and some pencils, and he became a loyal customer.”

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Abele has learned to use her personality and her humor in her business dealings. It’s important to build relationships with customers.

“You have to know the accounts payable person on the other side. And there’s always a 'please,' and there’s always a ‘thank you.’”

And her career advice to others is also straightforward:

“I have just four answers: work hard, persistence, determination and common sense. I share that to everyone. And then they will say, 'How did you overcome, you are in the male dominated men?' I said, 'just be yourself.' When I go to networking, I look at the name tag of people, and then no matter who is it, I just introduce myself. I don’t have any guilt or anything for my success because I am a dreamer. I set up a goal and I want to reach that goal. That’s what also I’m telling women, minorities and everybody that wants to start their own business.”

Abele took over as U.S. Lumber CEO in 1992.

“They told me there would be no U.S. Lumber if I took over. So I said to myself, and only to myself, ‘We will see.’” 

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