Power: The Headhuntress

Judee von Seldeneck, Michael Nutter’s point woman to fill top-level city posts, has built a worldwide executive recruiting company with her Southern sass and fierce intellect. That’s made her one of the most powerful women in Philadelphia

I AM BEING seduced by Judee von ­Seldeneck.

This comes as something of a surprise, considering she is probably 20 years my senior, is married, and — ­perhaps most important, since I’m gay — is a ­woman. But as I gaze down to the other end of the long, highly polished conference table at Diversified Search Ray & Berndtson, the global recruiting firm where Judee (pronounced “Judy” — more on that later) serves as chairman and CEO, I still feel like I’m being teased, flirted with. I’m most definitely being charmed, something I strongly suspect she knows. It is, after all, the point.

“Now, Maaak,” Judee is saying in her buttery North Carolina drawl, her eyes beckoning over her reading glasses at the opposite end of the table. On either side of us, executives from Diversified — one of the city’s biggest corporate power players, a firm that often decides who gets a CEO post and who doesn’t — sit bemused, watching Judee toy with me. “I think you’re likin’ what you’re hearin’ around this table, aren’t yeeww?”

I am. As they do every week, the senior recruiters from within the firm have gathered to issue progress reports on various placements, usually at the senior VP level or higher, at companies around the city, region and world. Listening in on these updates, I’ve just gotten a view of the salaries corporate America offers to its top-drawer executives, and the only thing I can think of, sitting here being studied by Judee von Seldeneck, is, God, there are a lot of people who make a lot of money.

“Are you excited about this guy?” Judee asks one staffer. To another, piped in on an intercom: “What do we need to do? You need to take some leadership here with the client. Tell me what you’re going to do.” A dizzying array of résumés, Cadillac compensation packages and varying opinions collide in this room to determine who will be our next business leaders.

In February, Business Week named Judee von Seldeneck one of the 50 most influential headhunters in the entire world. Last year, Diversified Search, in its global partnership with Ray & Berndtson, billed fees in excess of $282 million, and employed more than 1,000 people in 58 offices worldwide. Yet it wouldn’t appear likely that a woman with the brashness of a belle and the moniker of a prison matron would have ended up as a kingmaker in, of all places, Philadelphia. When she arrived here from Washington, D.C., 30 years ago, her claim to fame was that she had once been executive assistant to Walter Mondale, when he was a ­standard-issue U.S. senator from Minnesota. But people with the most humble beginnings often end up as the biggest surprises, and that can certainly be said of the woman I’m still locking eyes with, the one in the bright ­bumblebee-yellow jacket and gold jewelry who looks like Miss Ellie settling down J.R. and Bobby at the dinner table at Southfork. I can’t decide whether she’s overwhelming me with Southern charm or playing me like a fiddle.

My confusion is understandable. After our first meeting, some weeks back, she’d walked me out to the elevators, smiled, and said, “Now, the next time, we have to talk about yeewww. I want to know what your story is.” I demurred, reminding her that the purpose of all of this was for me to learn about her. A few weeks later, I sat next to her at an awards luncheon with the city power crowd. Retrieving my coat afterward as I left the Wanamaker Crystal Tea Room, I realized with horror that she had extracted almost my entire life story by dessert — including my stint as a PR writer at the Gas Works, an embarrassing résumé pit stop I admit to almost no one. “Her ability with people is to disarm them,” Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts and a longtime Judee confidante, tells me. “To bring out the best in them. And if there isn’t a best to be brought out, she has a better chance of finding that out than most people.”

“She has this very deft way of moving ahead with great good humor that makes it all sort of rollicking,” echoes Constitution Center head Joe Torsella. “I can’t quite explain it.”

Now, sitting down the vast length of conference table, I can’t, either. Yet. But I will. Because it’s odd to me, this arrangement, for lack of a better word. Odd that a woman — especially this woman, a Southern expatriate who favors a slightly jarring perpetual tan, bright pink lipstick, and skirt suits that could double as Christmas trees — could come to this city and become, arguably, the most powerful woman in it.

MAKE NO MISTAKE — Judee von Seldeneck is what a woman in power looks like these days. Under her careful eye, Diversified has filled some of the biggest executive slots in the region — at Lincoln Financial, Penn, Jefferson, Temple, Comcast, PECO — and the world. She also works from the inside out, serving on the boards of Tasty Baking (she pushed Charlie Pizzi for the CEO job and won) and Citizens Bank (ditto Dan Fitzpatrick). Perhaps most important, she has been the key player in bringing fresh blood into the highest levels of the Nutter administration, doing cabinet searches and laying the groundwork for an executive loan program through the Chamber of Commerce.

Thirty years ago, such a résumé would have been inconceivable. “As a woman starting a business in the city back in the ’70s, with all white males, and all these long bloodlines and people who had been in the city forever, ohhh,” she says to me one day in her office, the one lined with photos of her with the Clintons, her with Ed Rendell, her with seemingly Anyone Who’s Anyone Here. She folds her arms across her chest. This is something she does on two occasions: when she’s making a point, or when she wants you to get to yours. I’ve come to term this pose The Judee Fold. “They didn’t want any woman messing around here. You were supposed to be at home taking care of the children and tending the garden.

“Walter Mondale said, ‘Why are you going to Philadelphia?’ And I thought, That’s a good question.” She glances at me, lips curving into a smile filled with humor and mischief. “Now, I think it’s the greatest thang that ever could have happened.”

Her improbable road to Philadelphia started in High Point, North Carolina, a town known for crafting furniture rather than leaders. Her father was an executive at 3M who moved Judee — she adopted the odd spelling, which today she calls “ridiculous,” as part of a pact with a gaggle of school chums all named Judy — and the family to northern New Jersey for a job when she was a teenager. The culture shock was enormous, but she quickly tapped an innate ability to make friends — she was voted Miss Personality in her high-school yearbook. (“Don’t put that in!” she yells as I take notes.) “I luh-ved people and I luh-ved fun,” she says. I ask her if she broke a lot of rules. “I didn’t break rules,” she says slyly. “I … skirted the rules a little bit. Every now and then I’d have a little beer, which you weren’t supposed to do.”

After graduating from college in the early ’60s, she migrated to Washington, working in the Department of Commerce as a typist. (A quick aside about the timeline: As open and breezy as she can be, the one thing Judee von Seldeneck will not, under any circumstances, discuss is how old she is. “You’re headin’ onto dangerous ground there,” she drawled to me one day when I broached the topic, before giving me The Judee Fold.) She eventually ended up as a typist in Mondale’s office, until the day his executive assistant announced she was leaving. Judee wanted the job, but there was one teensy problem: She didn’t have a clue how to take shorthand.

A friend in the office was a whiz at it, and offered to stand outside the door and eavesdrop. “You just pretend like you’re taking it,” he said, “and I’ll be out here and I’ll get it all for you, no problem.”

So as Walter Mondale barked out correspondence — “Dear Lyndon: Great seeing you the other day …” “Dear Hubert: Hope this finds you feeling better … ” — Judee furiously doodled into her notebook. She got the friend’s notes, and the next day placed the stack of neatly typed letters on Mondale’s desk. “At my going-away party, we’re all there and Walter says, ‘The first time I met her, she came in here and never even looked at me as she sat there scribbling. I knew she wasn’t taking dictation!’ He knew all along and never said anything.”

She witnessed the turbulent history of ’60s Washington unfold right outside her window. She walked in the procession for JFK’s funeral, and stood at the Lincoln Memorial to listen to Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. “I think we’re on the threshold of another exciting time like that. It reminds me of those days,” she says of the current presidential race. It was the excitement of ­Camelot-era Washington that led to her fascination with power — how it was manifested and cultivated, used and wasted. And how women didn’t seem to have any of it.

LIKE A LOT of people in Philadelphia, Judee von Seldeneck landed here by chance. While in D.C., she got romanced by and engaged to investment banker Clay von Seldeneck, a Philadelphia native; once they were married, they moved here.

After a decade in the epicenter of the tumult of the national political discourse, she found herself bereft. Antsy to not just do something, but really do something, she bought into a small, female-owned firm that placed women in time-share jobs. In 1974 she bought out her partners, took office space in the Western Savings Building at Broad and Chestnut, and changed the firm’s focus to finding full-time jobs for women. “We had a card table and chairs, and we’d sit there and smoke cigarettes and figure out what to do,” she says.

The mid-1970s turned out to be the right time to figure it out, as the federal government — taking its cue in part from the burgeoning feminist movement — began setting aside federal contracts for female- and minority-owned businesses. “She didn’t approach it as a social or civic exercise,” Rimel says of Diversified’s start. “She approached it as a business.”

Eventually that business expanded beyond placing women, and — year by year, through relentless door-knocking and the occasional big break, like landing Fidelity Bank as a client — Judee von Seldeneck combined muscular intellect, Southern sass, a competitive golf game, a girly wardrobe, and a set of brass ones to elbow her way into the circles of the city’s corporate elite. Take, for example, the hunt for the CEO of the Kimmel Center in 2002. The Kimmel search committee — a who’s who of Philly business, culture and ­philanthropy — wanted a firm specializing in arts execs to make the hire. It invited Diversified to pitch for the gig “as a courtesy to Judee,” Comcast executive vice president David Cohen recalls. Armed with her steel-magnolia grace and citing both her personal commitment to the city and the turning point the Kimmel represented, she dazzled everyone. After she left, committee member Midge Rendell was the first to pipe up: “Anyone change their mind?” Diversified was hired within a week.

But for all her glass-ceiling-shattering, perhaps the most interesting thing about Judee von Seldeneck is how little she seems to think about being a woman in charge of a multinational company. And this may explain why she’s been so successful at it. While she has always understood that there were going to be men who didn’t want a woman anywhere near their businesses, it seems never to have occurred to her that this was an obstacle she couldn’t overcome. Such resilient belief runs through the cabal that Judee calls the “Ya-Yas,” a sisterhood of some of the city’s most powerful women that meets covertly from time to time to drink wine, talk shop, and gossip about local goings-on. In other words, an Old Girls’ Network. And Judee firmly believes the Old Girls have a duty to the Young Girls coming after them. “She keeps her eye out for people she thinks have potential, particularly women,” says Aqua America executive director Melissa Grimm, who in 2006 was placed by Judee as the executive director of the city’s effort to land the Olympics. “She’s accessible to give you advice, and when she gives it, she’s got a certain directness that I think is good in a mentor.”

“We kind of snuck up on the boys unexpectedly,” Judee recently wrote in a draft for a speech she would give at a United Way banquet honoring her friend, career coach Molly Shepard. “We had no game plan — we didn’t really know what we were doing except we wanted to work, use our brain, make some money and have fun. We didn’t mind that we were women — never occurred to us that we were anything else.”

STABBING AT HER Caesar salad in a corner booth of Twenty21, the clubby restaurant just downstairs from Diversified’s offices on Market Street, Judee tells me that yes, of course when she was younger she felt all those pangs of guilt and tugs toward home that every working woman does. In fact, one of her most oft-recited stories (being the Ann Richards of Philly has made her a popular pick on the local rubber-chicken circuit) concerns her son’s graduation more than 20 years ago. Not his high-school graduation, mind you. His graduation from grammar school to middle school.

Judee was speaking to a group of women in Valley Forge on how to balance your life and was afraid of cutting it too close to the graduation ceremony. So she blew $1,000 on a helicopter. “I’ve never been on a helicopter in my life,” she told the women. “But I’m getting on it so that I can be over to Chestnut Hill Academy in five minutes so that when my little boy comes down the aisle, I will be right there on the aisle waving to him.” And indeed, she was.

The point she’s making — and I know this, even though she hasn’t said it outright, because I’ve spent enough time with her, watching her work and mingle and manage and, yes, flirt — is not that women have to go all out to make life work. It’s that people do. That if you want to get ahead, if you want your dreams to come alive, if you want it all, there’s a simple credo to follow: Make it happen. And this, I conclude, is why Judee von Seldeneck, against all odds, has ended up as the most powerful woman in Philadelphia. Because in a bootstrap city like this one, squaring your shoulders, forgoing excuses and delivering results can get you very, very far. As Rimel says, Judee thinks women “don’t face any inherent barriers to succeeding in Philadelphia.”

And if you can dollop effortless charm on top, so much the better. When we leave the restaurant, Judee remarks how sitting outside here in the summer with a glass of chardonnay is simply soooo lovely, and how she and I have to do that, and she says it in a way where I can picture us doing it. She might be the most schmoozy schmoozer the city has seen outside of Ed Rendell.

In a town that loves its characters, she’s one of its most colorful — down to the tawny skin, the color of a brown paper grocery bag, that makes her a cinch to spot in any crowd. When I asked Torsella to describe her, he said, “Brightly colored. Funny. Incredibly loyal. Very tanned.” I brought the tan up to Dan Fitzpatrick, who burst into raucous laughter, then immediately shifted into retreat: “Honestly, I’ve never had a discussion with anyone about that.”

So I ask Judee herself about it. As she signs the lunch check in her loopy schoolgirl handwriting (“Nobody picks up my checks,” she rebuffs when I reach for it), she shrugs. “What can I say? I love bein’ out in the sun.” I ask her if she ever goes to the tanning booth.

Her eyes dart up from the check. “Of course not!” she says, giving me The Judee Fold. Almost every weekend, she’s at her house in Naples, Florida, out on the links. “When I go to the doctor and he starts in on me, I just tell him, ‘Don’t waste your breath. I know what I’m doin’.’”

Around the Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.