Michael Towbes, age 87, chairman of the Board of Directors of The Towbes Group Inc. and Montecito Bank & Trust, beloved philanthropist and all-around mensch, died at home in Santa Barbara, California, on April 13, 2017.
He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death, following a short but valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.
Mike will be remembered as a pillar of the Santa Barbara community. For years he has been admired as a savvy entrepreneur, a generous humanitarian and a true gentleman. He believed in working hard to build a better world and giving back to the community that had given him so much.
Mike was born in Washington, D.C., on July 17, 1929, the oldest child of Thelma and Louis Towbes. He attended Roosevelt High School and went on to obtain his B.S.E. in Civil Engineering from Princeton University, graduating Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1951. Mike was the manager of the Princeton basketball team, played intramural tennis, and was an active participant in the Terrace Club and the Center for Jewish Life.
He pursued graduate studies in Structural Engineering at MIT, but in 1952, with the Korean War underway, he joined the Naval Civil Engineer Corps as an ensign. Mike was assigned to the Naval Air Missile Test Center in Point Mugu, California.
While stationed at Point Mugu, Mike met his first love, Gail Aronson, at a UCLA fraternity party. He learned from a friend that Gail loved the ballet. Somehow, he secured tickets to the American Ballet Theater’s performance in Los Angeles and invited Gail as his date. They were married on Valentine’s Day in 1954, and their oldest daughter, Lianne, who was born in 1956, is named for the prima ballerina who danced that night.
Shortly after his wedding, Mike was transferred to the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D.C., where he completed his Navy career in 1955. After suffering though a D.C. summer and winter, Gail convinced Mike to make their home in California. They settled in West Los Angeles in 1955.
Once in Los Angeles, Mike teamed up with a fellow Washington transplant, Eli Luria, to start a real estate construction and development company known as the Luria-Towbes Company. Eli and Mike started by building one custom home in Brentwood.
In the late 1950s, they began building in Lompoc, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, motivated in part by the transfer of Vandenberg Air Force Base from the Army’s jurisdiction. Because of the housing needs this generated, Mike and Gail moved to Santa Maria in 1957. Their younger daughter, Carrie, was born in 1959, and the young family relocated to Santa Barbara in 1960.
Mike was a loving and devoted husband to Gail, who passed away in 1996 following a more than 20-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
Mike and Eli ended their partnership in the early 1960s, and Mike operated as a sole proprietor until 1970, when Michael Towbes Construction & Development Inc. was formed. This entity was the general contracting arm of Mike’s operations and served as general partner in a number of his real estate partnerships that survive today.
In 1975, Mike was one of a group of people who formed the Bank of Montecito, now known as Montecito Bank & Trust, the oldest and largest, locally owned community bank on the Central Coast. The bank has assets of more than $1.3 billion, with 10 branches from Solvang to Westlake Village. Mike became the sole shareholder in 1983.
In his role as the bank’s chairman and owner, he was proud of the work of the more than 210 bank associates. In addition to the many awards the bank received under his vision and leadership, he recently was named 2017 Banker of the Year Runner Up by Western Independent Bankers.
He was always most proud of Montecito Bank & Trust’s role as a leader in local corporate philanthropy, giving more than $1.3 million annually to area nonprofits through the Community Dividends program, Anniversary Grants and nonprofit sponsorships, focusing primarily on organizations whose missions support the arts, youth and education, social welfare and medical and health services sectors.
Mike used to say that as a real estate developer, he was not a banker, “but, I’m a very experienced borrower.”
In the mid-1990s, the contracting and property management activities were shifted to The Towbes Group Inc., and what began with a part-time secretary and a superintendent has grown to 125 employees with properties under development and management from Pismo Beach to Westlake.
Under Mike’s leadership, the award-winning Towbes Group committed to provide exceptional service at all stages, from project development to ongoing management. Widely recognized for delivering excellence across all its products and services, The Towbes Group has distinguished itself as a trustworthy, innovative organization, and a vital community member.
The Towbes Group has developed more than 6,000 residential units, with an emphasis on affordable and workforce-priced housing, and 1.8 million square feet of commercial properties, primarily in the tri-counties region.
The company also holds a strong commitment to sustainability and philanthropy. Mike celebrated his 60th year in the construction and development business in 2016 by completing one of his largest and most complicated projects of his career, the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics residence hall at UC Santa Barbara. The project was funded by noted philanthropist Charlie Munger, and built and perfected by Mike.
Mike’s hard work has earned him numerous accolades, including entry into the California Building Industry Hall of Fame, The Home Builder’s Association of the Central Coast’s 2014 Builder of the Year, and numerous Santa Barbara and Goleta Beautiful awards. Mike continued his leadership in the real estate industry right up to the time of his death with the completion of Hancock Terrace Apartments in Santa Maria, which recently won an American Planning Association award.
Mike had a passion for giving back that began early in his career. As a developer who helped build the community, he recognized the need to support the community where he lived and worked.
His service began with active volunteerism in the 1960s. As a community leader, Mike served and chaired innumerable local nonprofit boards. He was president of the Santa Barbara Foundation and served on the board of Cottage Hospital for 27 years, including five years as its chairman.
He also served as president of Montecito Union School and Laguna Blanca School, and was a founding board member of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara. He has served on visiting advisory committees for the Princeton University Department of Economics and the MIT Department of Urban Studies.
Other nonprofit boards on which he has served include the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts, the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, the Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara, the UCSB Foundation, the Foundation for Santa Barbara City College, Lotusland, and the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, to name just a few.
In 1980, Mike and Gail started the Towbes Foundation, dedicated to meeting the diverse needs of local nonprofits. The Towbes Foundation focuses on a broad range of organizations from social services to education to the arts. The Towbes Foundation started with a $500 donation 37 years ago and now donates more than $900,000 annually to more than 300 organizations.
Michael met his second true love, Anne Smith Towbes, in 2004 through their mutual involvement in the Lobero Theatre. Their first date was at the San Ysidro Ranch on Christmas Eve, and it was love at first sight. They were married at Lotusland on September 4, 2005. Their 11½ years together were filled with shared interests, including tennis, a love of the arts, philanthropic involvement in the community, and travel to six continents. To cap it off, in 2015 they even camped at Burning Man!
Mike leaves an amazing legacy of giving that he hopes inspires others to continue his good work.
He is survived by his wife, Anne Smith Towbes; 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 Theater, 1214 State St. in Santa Barbara, at 2 p.m. Tuesday, May 23, 2017.
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.