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Michael Towbes, Santa Barbara Philanthropist and Businessman, Dies at 87

Pancreatic cancer claims longtime banker, developer and civic leader who always expressed commitment to community first

Michael Towbes and his wife, Anne, were frequent guests — and honorees — at local philanthropic events and fundraisers, including the 2016 Goleta’s Finest awards put on by the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce. Click to view larger
Michael Towbes and his wife, Anne, were frequent guests — and honorees — at local philanthropic events and fundraisers, including the 2016 Goleta’s Finest awards put on by the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce. (Rochelle Rose / Noozhawk file photo)

Michael Towbes, one of Santa Barbara’s most successful business executives and a civic leader who left an indelible mark on the community through his philanthropy, died at his Montecito home early Thursday. He was 87.

Further details were not immediately available, but Noozhawk confirmed his death with senior employees at Montecito Bank & Trust and The Towbes Group.

“He passed away early this morning at his home, surrounded by family and in peace,” Craig Zimmerman, president of The Towbes Group, said in a text to Noozhawk later Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon, the family confirmed that Towbes had died of pancreatic cancer after a short but fierce battle.

Recent, undisclosed health challenges appeared to be a factor in Towbes’ decision earlier this month to step down as chairman of Montecito Bank & Trust, which he had co-founded in 1975.

“I have had an amazing life,” Towbes said in an April 3 statement from the bank outlining the intended succession plan.

The bank’s board was to have considered the proposal at its regular directors meeting later this month. Under the plan, longtime president and CEO Janet Garufis would become chairwoman, and executive vice president and chief operating officer George Leis would follow her as president.

Montecito Bank & Trust, the oldest and largest locally owned bank in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, reported assets of more than $1.3 billion at the end of 2016.

Towbes made a name for himself through The Towbes Group, which he founded in 1956 with then-business partner Eli Luria. The Santa Barbara-based development and property management company has built more than 6,000 residential units on the Central Coast, and manages around 2,500 housing units along with more than 1.8 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties.

“I think I’ve done a lot of projects in this community I’m really proud of,” Towbes said in a 2016 Noozhawk interview, specifically mentioning his role in renovating The Granada Theatre in 2006.

“I think my favorite part is apartments,” he added. “The only thing I like more than groundbreakings are ribbon cuttings.”

Michael Towbes was the founder of The Towbes Group, one of Santa Barbara County’s leading developers, and Montecito Bank & Trust, its largest and oldest locally owned bank. Click to view larger
Michael Towbes was the founder of The Towbes Group, one of Santa Barbara County’s leading developers, and Montecito Bank & Trust, its largest and oldest locally owned bank. (Noozhawk file photo)

As if to prove his point, Towbes last year participated in ribbon-cuttings for the 272-unit Hancock Terrace Apartments in Santa Maria, a $65 million residence hall for the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara, and the final phase of the Willow Springs apartment complex in Goleta.

“We’ve made wonderful friends here,” Towbes said, explaining his passion for business. “I’m providing a useful service. So why quit?”

In the 2016 Noozhawk interview, Garufis spoke of Towbes’ philosophy, which courses through the veins of both companies. She said he believed that a community bank should lend to and serve its residents first and foremost.

With The Towbes Group, she added, he would not undertake a development outside about an hour’s drive to ensure that he knew enough about the community to make a positive impact.

“He has an absolutely perfect poker face,” Garufis said of Towbes’ negotiating style. “He’s always willing to walk away. He’s a man of few words. He makes the most of every moment in every day. He’s a total gentleman. People feel very, very loyal to him.”

Towbes and his wife, Anne Smith Towbes, whom he married in 2006, have been leading philanthropists in the community. In addition to The Granada Theatre, they have been involved in countless nonprofit organizations and causes, including the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College, Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara County, Opera Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Foundation, Santa Barbara Foundation, Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara and UCSB Foundation.

Michael Towbes, with wife Anne Smith Towbes, outside Santa Barbara’s landmark Granada Theatre he did so much to help restore. Click to view larger
Michael Towbes, with wife Anne Smith Towbes, outside Santa Barbara’s landmark Granada Theatre he did so much to help restore. (Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts photo)

Through his own Towbes Foundation, he provided additional crucial support to arts, education and medical research organizations.

Similarly, Montecito Bank & Trust donates $1.3 million annually through its Community Dividends awards to local nonprofit organizations and other sponsorships.

In a statement from the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts, the Board of Directors hailed Towbes for his vision in bringing The Granada’s restoration project to completion.

“We are proud to be one of the many institutions throughout the Central Coast to have benefited from his philanthropic support, his always thoughtful advice, his actively engaged participation as a board member, and his generosity of spirit,” the statement said.

Board chairman Dan Burnham called Towbes a “humble man of generosity, integrity and leadership.”

“He led the restoration of The Granada Theatre with a singular focus on the end result — creating a performance arts center worthy of the aspirations of the Santa Barbara community — and he did so without bluster or ego,” he said. “We send our love and condolences to his precious wife, Anne, and to all of the Towbes family.”

SBCPA board member Sarah Schlinger Chrisman chaired the organization during much of The Granada project.

“Michael will be sorely missed by our community,” she said. “He was my mentor and my friend who taught me wonderful lessons about being an engaged philanthropist, dedicated to improving the lives of all in our town.

“He will never be forgotten by those of us who worked closely with him on the restoration of The Granada Theatre, and the uplifting effect of his generosity will be felt for decades to come by every institution and individual who was touched by his life.”

Gail and Michael Towbes during an Old Spanish Days event in an undated family photo. Click to view larger
Gail and Michael Towbes during an Old Spanish Days event in an undated family photo. (Towbes family photo)

Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the 600-member Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, credited much of Towbes’ success in business to his character and integrity.

“He gave ‘businessman’ a good name,” she told Noozhawk. “May we all be as honorable, as humble and as kind.

“He had a huge impact on Goleta, the Goleta Chamber of Commerce, and me. I learned so much from him, and I could be confident that I was learning from a good heart, a generous spirit and a respected elder.

“Watching how he worked with the City of Goleta through their most trying days of new cityhood was inspiring, and I learned much about housing advocacy from him.”

For the past 12 years, Towbes served on the board of the Housing Trust Fund, a nonprofit financing initiative for local workforce housing.

“We count ourselves lucky to have benefited from his expertise and advice,” said Jennifer McGovern, the Housing Trust Fund’s president and CEO. “Many of us who have known Michael since the 1970s knew him to be the consummate proactive supporter of affordable and workforce housing.

“He was a kind, generous, perfect gentlemen of rare caliber, and he will be greatly missed.”

Billie Maunz, who retired in 2006 after 16 years as executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, thanked Towbes for his foresight in helping to establish what has become “the largest community-based scholarship foundation in the nation” — a result, she said, he was rightly proud of.

“Michael Towbes was a man of action,” she said. “We all talk about the value of education. In 1962, Michael Towbes, then age 32, was one of a dozen local community leaders who founded the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara. Over the past 55 years, he was an active board member and then an active honorary board member. He was kind, extremely generous and sharing.”

After growing up in Washington, D.C., Towbes studied civil engineering at Princeton University and MIT. He served in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps during the Korean War and moved in the mid-1950s to Los Angeles with his first wife, Gail, who died in 1996 after a decades-long battle with multiple sclerosis. He was an avid tennis player, often playing at least twice a week until late last year.

Towbes is survived by his wife, Anne; daughters Lianne Towbes and Carrie Towbes; son-in-law John Lewis; grandchildren Allison Lewis Towbes and Zachary Lewis Towbes; Anne’s children, Jennifer Smith Hale (Nicholas) and Michael Smith (Natali), and her grandchildren, Leighton Hale, Carrington Hale, Ella Smith and Leo Smith; sister Carol Lee Skinner; step-brother Harold Sinrod (Allison); nephew Robert Skinner (Meghan); and niece Amy Sweeney (Patrick); and four grandnieces and grandnephews.

A public memorial service will be held at The Granada Theatre, 1214 State St. in Santa Barbara, at 2 p.m. May 23.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to The Granada Theatre, c/o Hayley Jessup, 1330 State St., Suite 101, Santa Barbara 93101, or to a favorite nonprofit organization.

Montecito Bank & Trust said canvases have been placed in each of the bank’s South Coast branches if the public would like to write any notes or condolences.

“Mr. Towbes created an amazing space for the bank and the community, and we want to in turn provide space for clients and community members to share their thoughts if they would like,” said Megan Orloff, the bank’s senior vice president and marketing director.

The branches are located at 1023 Casitas Pass Road in Carpinteria, 1106-A Coast Village Road in Montecito, 1000 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara, 3802 State St. in Santa Barbara, and 5658 Calle Real and 6900 Hollister Ave. in Goleta.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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