Michael Towbes Leaves a Living Legacy

Santa Barbara’s Michael Towbes built a legacy of giving back that continues, despite his recent passing last April. The 60-year Santa Barbara resident wore many hats—beloved civic leader and philanthropist, award-winning builder, successful property manager, head of Montecito Bank & Trust, and devoted family man—and touched thousands of lives and hundreds of nonprofits with his generosity during his lifetime.

Although this extraordinary man of vision and passion passed away at age 87, Towbes will be remembered for his mission of giving back, fostered through his Montecito Bank & Trust, The Towbes Group and Towbes Foundation.

“Mr. Towbes was an extraordinary human being,” said Montecito Bank & Trust’s chairwoman Janet Garufis. “When you were in his presence, you knew you were with someone special. He was a man of great humility and integrity and completely dedicated to his philanthropy.”

Having recently stepped down as Montecito Bank & Trust’s chairman, Towbes passed the scepter to Garufis, the bank’s former president and CEO. Garufis says Towbes structured his estate plan to preserve the bank’s tradition of giving back.

Engineering His Future

Born in Washington, DC on July 17, 1929, Michael Towbes graduated high school and went on to earn a degree in Civil Engineering from Princeton University, where he graduated with honors. He started graduate studies at MIT in Structural Engineering, but in 1952, with the Korean War beginning, he enlisted in the Naval Civil Engineering Corp.

Stationed at the Naval Air Missile Test Center in Point Mugu, Towbes met and fell in love with Gail Aronson at a UCLA fraternity party; they married on Valentine’s Day in 1954, after which Towbes was transferred back to Washington, DC, and ended his Navy career the following year.

Mrs. Towbes missed California and convinced her husband to return to Southern California. He soon teamed up with Eli Luria to form the Luria-Towbes Company, a real estate construction and development firm. They built their first custom home in Brentwood, before venturing north to the Santa Barbara area. By 1960, the Towbes family had settled in Santa Barbara.

Montecito Bank & Trust

In 1975, Mr. Towbes cofounded the Bank of Montecito, now Montecito Bank & Trust, the Central Coast’s oldest and largest, locally-owned community bank. Today, the bank’s assets are over $1.3 billion, operating with 200+ associates in 10 branch offices from Westlake Village to Solvang. Innovation, technology and personalized customer service have spurred the bank’s growth.

In 1983, Mr. Towbes became the sole shareholder of the bank, taking over the chairmanship and making Montecito Bank & Trust the jewel in his burgeoning business empire. In addition to providing quality service and financial products to his clients, he incorporated his mission of making the communities they serve better places to live and work.

Garufis says Mr. Towbes wanted to limit his business dealings—banking or building—to within an hour’s drive from Santa Barbara. “He felt you couldn’t know the distant communities well enough to properly serve and support them,” she recalls.

Garufis adds that Mr. Towbes believed their philanthropic efforts would be strongest if they were closer to home. The bank remains true to that philosophy, which has allowed measured, steady and profitable growth, even in the worst economic times.

For over four decades, the talented men and women of the banking institution have dedicated themselves to both helping their customers with their financial needs and investing in their communities in a variety of ways. Mr. Towbes served as their teacher and model.

“Over the past 13 years, it has been a privilege to work with Mike, learn from him, and, perhaps, most importantly, to be mentored by him in countless ways,” says Garufis. “He taught me the value of paying attention to details, leadership, patience, service, generosity of spirit, and corporate philanthropy.”

Garufis says Mr. Towbes’ favorite day of the year was the Community Dividends Luncheon, when his team distributed a million dollars to various local nonprofits. To date, the bank’s Community Dividends program has already awarded $14 million to help support local nonprofits involved with the arts, youth, education, social welfare and healthcare services. The Anniversary Grants program enables the bank’s associates to nominate and vote for local charities to be granted thousands of dollars annually.

As someone who literally helped build communities, Mr. Towbes knew well the value of giving back financially and with his time. For some 60 years, he volunteered and served on nonprofit boards and advisory committees, establishing the Towbes Foundation with wife, Gail, in 1980 to help support local nonprofits. Today, the Foundation contributes some $900,000 annually to over 300 organizations ranging from social services and education to the arts.

In 1996, when Mr. Towbes’ beloved wife passed away after a 20-year fight with multiple sclerosis, he rededicated himself to helping his communities grow and prosper.

He met Anne Smith in 2004, and it was love at first sight; they married the following year. Their shared interests in tennis, the arts, philanthropy and travel led to their involvement in many projects, including restoration of the Granada Theater, a Santa Barbara landmark.

They also actively supported organizations, such as the Santa Barbara Foundation, UCSB Foundation, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Foundation, Foundation for Santa Barbara City College, Opera Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts, and Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara County.

The recipient of awards and accolades too numerous to mention, Mr. Towbes was inducted into the California Building Industry Hall of Fame, and in 2014 was named Builder of the Year by the Home Builder’s Association of the Central Coast. As a banker, Mr. Towbes was runner up as 2017 Banker of the Year bestowed by the Western Independent Bankers Association. He was most proud of the bank’s role as a leader and advocate of local, corporate philanthropy. As a civic leader and philanthropist, he has been honored as Santa Barbara’s Man of the Year, given UCSB’s Chancellor’s Medal, selected as Santa Barbara’s Philanthropist of the Year and Volunteer of the Year, among many other notable awards.

In its efforts to continuously improve its banking and financial management experience for its customers, Montecito Bank & Trust offers an impressive array of programs, including business, personal and nonprofit financing, online and mobile banking, wealth management, investments, trust and estate planning, and residential mortgage banking.

Garufis notes that Mr. Towbes’ vision will be carried on and that being a good corporate citizen remains a priority for the bank and its associates, who are actively engaged in their communities and firmly believe in volunteerism and “paying it forward,” as did Mr. Towbes.

Throughout his life, Mr. Towbes strongly believed in contributing to strengthening the communities in which he worked, a philosophy that is fundamental to his mission and the cornerstone of the bank’s family-like culture that ultimately translates to caring treatment of their customers.

A generous, kind man of action, Michael Towbes leaves an indelible mark on the local communities, and his legacy of giving back may well live on forever.

“For anyone of us fortunate enough to know, work, play, learn and benefit from his vision, it is the greatest possible gift. We will miss him, but never forget him,” adds Garufis.