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

“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.