Sitting in a conference room in his Santa Barbara office, surrounded by construction drawings of projects in the works and still to come, developer Michael Towbes talks about what keeps the work exciting for him.
The answer can be distilled into two words: the process.
“The idea of starting out with a piece of property, generally undeveloped, and sort of dreaming about what can be and what would work … then seeing the finished product, and how happy people generally are living and working in those places, brings me a lot of satisfaction,” he said.
Towbes is the real-estate tycoon behind The Towbes Group, which has spawned thousands of housing units and commercial properties across the region. He’s also a founding member and chairman of the board of Montecito Bank & Trust, and a philanthropic powerhouse in the nonprofit world.
Noozhawk sat down with the 83-year-old to find out where he has been and where he’s going.
“They sent me to Point Mugu, and I had never been west of Detroit before,” he said. “I thought it was wonderful.”
While he was there, he met his first wife, Gail, who was from Los Angeles. The couple moved back to Washington, D.C., so he could finish his Navy service there, and eventually moved back to California. Gail Towbes died in 1996.
After his service, Towbes connected with a friend of the family, Eli Luria, who was working in Southern California at the time as a contractor.
“He was a successful builder in Washington, but he had graduated from UCLA, so he had some experience in California,” Towbes said. “We met and developed a rich friendship and became business partners.”
The pair started building in Los Angeles until they learned there was a big housing boom happening in Santa Barbara County. Camp Cooke was reopened as Vandenberg Air Force Base, and housing was in demand, so Towbes and Luria moved into the area.
When asked what the area looked like then, Towbes said that “Santa Barbara has changed less than most places.”
“There were four traffic signals on Highway 101,” he said, “but the major landmarks were all here.”
Goleta, where Towbes has had a major influence on development, “was mostly orange and lemon groves,” he said. “It was quite rural.”
The North County has changed dramatically as Santa Maria has grown as well, he said.
Going forward, Towbes said, some of the projects he’s most excited about include the Sansum Clinic medical complex at Foothill and Cieneguitas roads, and a couple of apartment projects in Santa Maria that will add almost 500 units to the area’s housing stock.
Although Towbes has a track record now, he said building hasn’t gotten easier in some ways.
“Even though I’m more experienced and well-known, it doesn’t make it easier,” he said with a laugh.
“It’s the philanthropic things that I think I take the greatest pride in,” he said. “I like to say the only thing that’s more fun than making money is giving it away.”
Towbes said he also feels like it gives the bank employees pride to see that the company does so much community-oriented outreach.
Around 1973, Towbes said, he was approached by a group of people who wanted to start a savings and loan in Santa Barbara. The bank was given a charter, and opened in 1975 on Coast Village Road “in a trailer,” Towbes said.
He credits the bank’s enduring success to conservative, organic growth.
“We haven’t had growth for growth’s sake,” he said.
The bank has offices from Westlake Village to Solvang, and its footprint is the same as Towbes’ construction business.
“I think staying close to home has helped us,” he said.
Another highpoint for Towbes was watching the Granada reopen in 2008.
“It was a big thrill for me, and to see where we ended up, it was really something,” he said, adding that he and his wife, Anne, are huge fans of the performing arts.
When asked for the last good show he has been to, Towbes laughed and said he had seen his 16-year-old granddaughter singing with his 13-year-old grandson playing guitar at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, sharing a picture of the event on his BlackBerry.
At 83, Towbes doesn’t show any sign of slowing down — and no will to, either.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I’m in good health, and no one’s forcing me to retire, so I’m still doing it.”