Janet Garufis, chairwoman of Montecito Bank & Trust, is committed to carrying on the legacy of the late Michael Towbes, the bank’s patriarch: “Who we are today as a bank is every bit my vision and his vision together.” (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Janet Garufis could be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed in taking over the top position at Montecito Bank & Trust following the retirement and death of bank patriarch Michael Towbes, but she doesn’t seem fazed by the challenge.

Towbes, the iconic developer, banker and philanthropist who had faced serious health challenges in recent years, died April 13 of pancreatic cancer, less than two weeks after announcing his plans to retire from the bank chairmanship.

He left behind some proverbial giant footprints in Santa Barbara and on the Central Coast, and Garufis was the one tapped to fill them.

Montecito Bank & Trust’s presence — and that of the 87-year-old Towbes himself — has been ubiquitous in local communities, in both the business and nonprofit worlds, and Towbes set the bar very high for his successor.

Just days before Towbes’ death, Garufis sat down with Noozhawk to discuss her new role as chairwoman of Montecito Bank & Trust’s board of directors.

She sounded every bit the experienced and confident CEO, articulating and embracing an unambiguous vision for the Central Coast’s largest and most successful local financial institution.

“I would tell you that Mike Towbes’ vision is something I’ve been able to operationalize for him,” Garufis said during the interview in her State Street office. “So, in that regard, who we are today as a bank is every bit my vision and his vision together.

“It’s been built together, and that’s why I feel really comfortable that we’re really going down the road together.”

The 63-year-old banker comes across as an unabashed cheerleader for Montecito Bank & Trust, with words such as “wonderful,” “extraordinary” and “phenomenal” peppering her comments about the company, but she leaves little doubt that her passion for the bank and its mission are genuine.

“It’s my intention to be here, carrying on what he (Towbes) wants to be done, for as long as I’m adding value and I can keep building the bank the way he would want it to be built,” Garufis said in that earlier interview.

“I’ve had 10, 12 years to understudy, and I feel very confident that he’s confident that I’m the right person to do this job for him, and that I know exactly what needs to be done.”

With a transition of this magnitude, there naturally are questions about the future. Will the bank retain its local focus? Will it remain in local ownership and independence? Will it continue its uniquely charitable bent?

The answer to all those questions, Garufis said, is yes.

The late Michael Towbes, with wife Anne Towbes, took a long-term view of the banking business that his successor, Janet Garufis, plans to continue.

The late Michael Towbes, with wife Anne Towbes, took a long-term view of the banking business that his successor, Janet Garufis, plans to continue. (Rochelle Rose / Noozhawk file photo)

“I think that what really is most important to know is that, for the bank, it’s business as usual,” Garufis said. “Mike’s very long term view of business is certainly very well ingrained in our organization. So, this is the most orderly transition you can imagine …

“The bank is extraordinarily sound, very well capitalized, very liquid, and in some ways the bank has now achieved what Mike, I think, had always hoped but maybe never imagined could happen. That we would be the largest, oldest, locally owned and managed community bank on the Central Coast.

“That’s a long and huge journey, and quite an accomplishment for an organization that started out 42 years ago.”

For Garufis, her own journey to the top seat in the boardroom began almost accidentally while she was attending CSU Northridge.

Needing to put herself through college, she took a part-time job with Security Pacific National Bank, working as a teller at a branch in Santa Monica, and giving her a first exposure to the banking world.

“I liked what I did,” Garufis recalled. “The thing I liked about working at a branch at that time is it was very relational. You got to know the customers.”

Back in those days, there was no centralization, she noted, so everything happened in the branch banks.

“All the loan decisions were made there,” she said. “You documented them, you booked them, you did everything there. Everything was done by hand. There were no computers.”

After graduating college, Garufis was given a full-time job with Security Pacific, and began her rise through the bank ranks. She gained experienced and excelled in several of the bank’s division, and was there during its merger with Bank of America in 1991.

“I think a lot of the grounding I have, and the way I think about leadership and managing, came out of that experience,” she said, “because I saw the transformation that happened when you gave everybody a voice. Everybody got to put their nickel in.”

That was not the case seven years later, when NationsBank acquired Bank of America, which at the time was the largest bank merger in U.S. history.

“That’s when I decided it was not for me,” Garufis said. “I could not be successful in an environment that was so huge and so disconnected from its customers and its employees.”

Shifting gears, she decided to pursue a Ph.D., and enrolled in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, which is what brought her to the South Coast.

Her husband, Nick, was living with Parkinson’s disease and doing well until he developed dementia. It was then that the burdens of school, care-giving and medical expenses began to overwhelm her.

“My son sat me down and said, ‘This is not good for you or Nick,’” she explained. “He said, ‘You’ve got to do something different, Mom.’

“My kids were both in college, and we had just built a big new house in Montecito, and teaching at UCSB was not going to pay the bills when I had to have dementia care. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll do what I have to do and go find work where I can be fully employed.’”

That decision led her, eventually to a lengthy interview with Towbes in the very office she occupies today. After describing the bank and its mission, he got to the point: Why did she want to join Montecito Bank & Trust?

“I said, well, I have a lot of years experience in this industry, and it’s not rocket science, and I think I can do a really good job for your bank,” Garufis recalled. “But I also want to work someplace where it’s going to make a difference that I come to work every day. I really want to feel like I can have an impact.

“And I couldn’t do that in a big bank anymore, and I feel like I can do that here.”

Towbes responded, “’I think so, too. You’ve got the job.’ Just like that.”

Garufis clearly has no regrets, and the bank was extremely supportive when Nick died in 2007, only a few months after she was promoted to president and CEO.

“It’s been an amazing, wonderful, extraordinary experience …” she said. “I have a very deep respect for him. I will do everything in my power to honor his legacy.

“He told me many times, ‘You know, we don’t have a mandatory retirement age at Montecito Bank & Trust.’ And I said, yes, I know that, and that’s good, because you’re going to have to carry me out of here.”

Of paramount importance to Towbes — and to Garufis — is Montecito Bank & Trust’s focus on giving back to the community, not only through its banking and financial services, but through its philanthropy and volunteerism.

Bank employees at all levels are encouraged and given time off to pursue volunteer activities of every sort.

“I think we have come, more and more over the last several years, to play a very significant leadership role in this community in a number of ways,” Garufis said. “Certainly with our corporate philanthropy. I believe it’s second to none.

“In addition to our philanthropy, one of the most important legs of that stool is the volunteerism that happens. Our people are out in the community.”

From a business perspective, Garufis espouses a vision and philosophy that could safely be described as “steady as we go.”

“Continued right growth, correct grown, appropriate growth is always the challenge,” she said. “And we don’t grow for growth’s sake. Our whole goal here is to stay safe and sound, because we have a responsibility to our depositors.

“We want to be a safe-and-sound bank. We run our bank to be that way. We also want to be a resource to the communities where we do business.

“So the biggest challenge is just stay the course, to anticipate what’s going to come, and to be ready for it. We’ve done that really well over the last many years.”

With Towbes’ death, a new trust with three trustees has been created to own and oversee the bank and carry on his philosophy and goals — both for the business and for the community.

Although not unexpected, Towbes’ passing was felt deeply by the Montecito Bank & Trust family, Garufis said, but they are soldiering on.

“The team is doing great, actually,” she noted during a phone interview last week. “We’ve had our days of sadness, certainly, but as Mike would have wanted it, everyone is working toward the future.”

In fact, Garufis believes the loss of the bank’ patriarch has spawned an even greater commitment to the missions he championed.

“No one ever wanted to let Mike down,” Garufis said. “And even without his presence, our need to do that seems to be bigger than ever before. There’s a personal commitment to doing everything we can do to deliver excellence because that’s what he would want.

“That’s a powerful legacy — of doing as much good work in your absence as when you were present.”

For herself, Garufis exudes a calm sense of purpose in her new role.

“I feel like this is, if you were ever meant to be in a place, this story really couldn’t have been written any better,” she said. “This is the right place, the right time, for so many reasons.

“And a lot had to happen for me to be sitting in this chair at this moment, and I take that very seriously. I’m totally grateful for the opportunity to be the steward for this fine organization.”

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Light-haired man with mustache smiling

Tom Bolton, Noozhawk Executive Editor

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com.