September 23, 2010
Philanthropist Michael Towbes
Hitting singles and sharing the wealth
While many of America’s largest corporations have been struggling through the current economic downturn, one Southern California bank has managed to turn a profit, even as it also shared a portion of the wealth with its local community. That bank is Montecito Bank & Trust, whose chairman and sole owner is Michael Towbes.
“I think I’ve made a career of hitting singles and not trying to hit home runs,” Towbes said. “People with home runs strike out a lot.”
With eight branch locations in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Montecito Bank & Trust boasts more than $900 million in assets. For Towbes, financial success goes hand in hand with charitable giving.
The bank’s Community Dividends program, now in its eighth year, gives $1 million annually to various local nonprofits. In the first few years, the program distributed the monies among roughly 100 organizations. In recent years, as awareness of the program has grown, the money has been divided among some 130 to 140 organizations, including programs for Girls and Boys Clubs, social service agencies, food banks, senior centers, a rape crisis center, Special Olympics and much more .
“I’m hopeful that when the economy gets better, we can expand the pie,” Towbes said. “We haven’t cut back on the pie, either, which I think is really important.”
Towbes’ motivation for such generosity has been a mixture of both social awareness and practicality. Recognizing the “tremendous social needs” of others, he reasoned that because he was already making large personal donations, it would be wise to give directly from his bank and thereby earn tax deductions.
“We like to call Community Dividends ‘giving back,’ and we mean it very literally because we wouldn’t have the success we have if we weren’t being supported by the community,” he said.
But the commitment to community is deeply personal, as well. He lauds Santa Barbara’s natural beauty and cultural venues — the opera and ballet companies and the symphony orchestra are among his favorites.
Born in 1929 in Washington, D.C., Towbes, studied at Princeton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning his degrees in civil engineering. He served in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps from 1952 to 1955.
Before establishing the Montecito Bank & Trust in 1975, Towbes started out in the construction business. His companies’ names have changed multiple times since the start of his career in 1956, but his property development and management company is currently known as The Towbes Group. Through his expertise in building, just as through Montecito Bank & Trust, Towbes has found a way to turn success into community service. He has been involved in developing a number of low-income housing projects and is on the boards of the Housing Trust Fund and the National Association of Home Builders.
A member of Santa Barbara’s Congregation B’nai B’rith and former chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara’s President’s Cabinet, Towbes believes his Jewish identity has largely influenced his feelings about philanthropy.
“I think giving back is really part of the Jewish tradition. Looking around Santa Barbara, the percentage of major donors here who are Jewish, compared to the [general] population, is amazing. I don’t think you do good deeds on earth because you expect to be rewarded in some afterlife. I think you do good deeds here and let the afterlife take care of itself.”
Towbes’ philanthropy has earned him a Santa Barbara News-Press Lifetime Achievement Award, a UCSB Chancellor’s Medal, and the titles of Santa Barbara Volunteer of the Year, Santa Barbara Philanthropist of the Year and Santa Barbara Man of the Year. Lately, however, Towbes says that he’s cut down his list of volunteering efforts in order to focus his energy on something else – his bride.
The honeymoon “is not ending!” Towbes said as he spoke of his wife, Anne Smith, whom he married five years ago.
Towbes married Smith, a widow, after his first wife, Gail, died in 1996. Towbes and Smith travel frequently around the United States and are planning trips to Spain and Morocco in October.
With such success in both his personal and professional lives, what does Michael Towbes feel remains to accomplish?
“Getting up tomorrow morning!” he said with a laugh. “I look back with a great deal of satisfaction over my career and say there really aren’t things that I still want to accomplish. I think my greatest achievement in business is being in a position to set an example in terms of philanthropy. I still love what I do; I’d like to continue doing it.”