Filipino immigrant took over husband’s lumber business … now, she is thriving in ownership role

If you had to picture South Jersey’s lumber magnate … you might envision a more grizzled and rough-around-the-edges business owner than Filipino immigrant and former nanny and housekeeper Isabelita “Lita” Marcelo Abele.

But, don’t mistake her for a pushover. She’s earned esteem and honors in the lumber and building materials industry, heading a firm that’s had involvement in projects such as One World Trade Center in New York — and she won’t suffer fools who can’t treat her with respect.

Abele made a point of that upon taking ownership of US Lumber Inc. in Woodbury Heights from her husband. She told the employees that there would be no more laughing at her behind her back, as they had done before. She was now in charge, whether they liked it or not.

Some of the projects US Lumber Inc. worked on.

“They didn’t last, because they didn’t want to report to me as a woman, especially one with an accent,” she said.

The respect she demanded in her firm was a call-back to her working-class upbringing in the Philippines, where the culture is one of profound respect for those senior to you, she said.

She, like many Filipinos in her generation, decided to migrate to the U.S. for the opportunity to work in higher-wage jobs than what her home country offered. Many of those following that path went to school for nursing.

“I tried that,” she said. “But me and science don’t get along.”

Instead, Abele took the various housekeeping and caretaking roles she could land before starting to work for her husband’s lumber firm, which he had started in 1974. There, she learned the ropes when it comes to selling and procuring lumber.

Due to some friction with employees who, as Abele alluded to, clearly didn’t appreciate having the boss’s wife around, she eventually launched her own broker company to solicit more lumber business. She merged that business entity into US Lumber Inc. and took majority ownership of the firm when her husband wanted to enter a semi-retirement.

The firm’s products have been featured on major construction projects, including several Atlantic City casinos, the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium, the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark and bridges along the New Jersey Turnpike.

Along the way, Abele has earned her own accolades, including receiving the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the World Award in 2017. That’s the year her firm hit $10 million in gross sales.

She’s over 70 years old, but still going strong as a family business owner. She’s happy to have her two children and husband still working beside her, as well as a niece that came over from the Philippines to work in the office.

As she sees it, she’s living out a dream. So, why stop now?

“I always wanted to own my own business,” she said. “My husband gave me that opportunity. I grabbed it, ran with it and, up until now, I’m still holding onto it.”

Value proposition

Estates and trusts attorney Elizabeth Petite, as much as anyone, likes a good success story.

Elizabeth Petite.

But, as family businesses grow from the ground up, they accrue a value that’s going to mean a lot to the next generation. That next generation in a family business might have expectations of how that will all get divided up.

And, when those aren’t lived up to, emotions often take center stage, said Petite, an attorney at Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper P.C.

The reality of that might not always be as dramatic as HBO’s “Succession,” but part of Petite’s job does involve getting out in front of any frustrations or disputes with plenty of planning.

Although there’s more to know about how families figure this all out than can be covered in a few bullet points, here are some items that Petite said should be considered well in advance, but sometimes go overlooked:

  • If someone’s parent started the company from scratch, the cost basis on that business asset is probably zero. That means the children taking over a business in the future could face massive capital gains tax, she said.
  • What happens if mom survives dad and then needs the income that was being earned from the business to survive? That’s when you might consider what other assets can be distributed to children instead of the profits of a business sale.
  • Keeping all things equal makes sense. But, as Petite intimated, it’s not always simple to do that when everything is tied up in the business. One son or daughter might feel more entitled to business equity because they worked hard to help grow it. It’s important to sort out those family dynamics before someone ends up unhappy.