Tag Archives: Michael Towbes

The Banker Bent on Changing the World

Though his parents are from the Bronx, George Leis spent a good chunk of his wonder years growing up in Deer Park, a town on Long Island where folks go to Jones Beach, not the Hamptons. Leis’ father worked as an electrician for the Otis Elevator company and George, who would later be the first in his family to attend college, learned to swim at the local YMCA. His modest middle-class roots are evident in both Leis’ humble demeanor and in an accent that refuses to surrender its outer-borough brogue, despite Leis having spent most of his life in Southern California and career working for banks that control billions of dollars.

“My mom and dad are 93 and they still sound like they’re from the Bronx,” laughs Leis. If you somehow haven’t yet met Leis, picture Phil Donahue in his heyday – silver mane and twinkling eyes.

Though Leis got razzed a bit for his accent when he and his family moved to Westwood those many years ago, Leis proved a quick read on the West Coast’s charms. “I resisted leaving because all my friends were back there, but as soon as I got here I saw the beaches,” Leis recalls, “and you know it’s December and it’s like 80 degrees and I’m in my shorts and I call my friends back home and they’re like, ‘the [snow] drifts are up to the bedroom window on the second floor.’”

Aside from the great weather and beaches, Leis noticed something else about his new home – “how expansive and far reaching and diverse the community is.” That nascent awareness really hit home when he went to college at Cal State Northridge, ground zero for a rising social and political consciousness among young people in California, particularly Latinos, many of whom, like Leis, were the first in their families to go to college. The seminal Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies had started just years before Leis matriculated to CSU Northridge and, indeed, a new day seemed to be dawning. “My college experience really gave me a broader insight into what’s going on,” says Leis. “It was an amazing experience.”

As indelible as Cal State Northridge’s mark on this region has been, it’s not exactly known as a fast track to careers in banking, and, indeed, the future President and Chief Operating Officer of Montecito Bank & Trust had no intention of pursuing that path. His practical parents wanted Leis to go into computer programming, but he “wanted to change the world.” With that in mind, Leis soon switched his major to geography, with an eye on becoming a city planner.

“Michael Towbes instilled a culture in Montecito Bank & Trust that resonated with me. When I interviewed here four or five years ago, he said, ‘George, I always have five minutes for anybody.’”

Leis graduated college in 1981, just in time for Proposition 13 to put a damper on expansive municipal investments. Nonetheless, Leis managed to get a job at the Van Nuys Chamber of Commerce working in a public-private partnership called Vitalize Van Nuys (now the Valley Economic Development Center). A banker with Security Pacific National Bank liked what he saw while working with Leis and started recruiting him. When Leis protested that he wanted to change the world, the banker said, “How about you change one person’s life at a time?”

Leis decided to give it a go and he soon entered Security Pacific’s management training program. The bank’s culture, even into its merger with Bank of America, instilled in Leis some bedrock values: be a part of the community, give back, and always make time to listen. Leis tells of how it didn’t matter if work took him to 6400 Wilshire Boulevard where Tina Turner was a client, or to the Crenshaw District where the bank would cash $5 checks, “there was really no difference in the way we treated a client or approached those issues.”

After another big merger, though, Leis started to feel some of that human touch start to fade. Luckily, he found a fellow traveler in Michael Towbes, the founder of Montecito Bank & Trust. “Michael instilled a culture in this bank that resonated with me. When I interviewed here four or five years ago, he said, ‘George, I always have five minutes for anybody.’”

In just over four years as President and Chief Operating Officer of Montecito Bank & Trust, Leis has given way more than five minutes to a variety of causes and efforts. He is chairman of the CSU Channel Islands Foundation Board of Directors, sits on the board of the YMCA of the USA, and has been an integral part of campaigns to renovate the Santa Barbara Zoo, the Cabrillo Pavilion and more.

In each case, Leis cites a personal connection. He’s never forgotten “the great care” the YMCA took in teaching “an awkward and not very coordinated swimmer.” As a first-generation college student whose vistas were broadened by going to college, Leis feels deeply connected to the mission of CSU Channel Islands.

His pet project (forgive the pun), though, is the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, for which he serves as chairman of the board. The organization has its roots in lessons in a paradigm shift precipitated by the Oklahoma City Bombing – dogs found survivors far more quickly and efficiently than humans. Now, Leis helps redirect dogs bound for euthanasia to a life-saving training facility on a 160-acre campus in Santa Paula.

“I’m a real dog lover,” says Leis, “so that was the sort of hook, but the real hook is that we take on dogs that are going to be killed and we turn them into highly skilled partners with first responders.”

Indeed, as we are discussing this wonderful program, Leis, who has four dogs of his own, disappears into his study and comes back on camera with a stuffed National Search Dog Rescue mascot. It looks like a golden retriever pup and it’s adorned with a Montecito Bank & Trust service-dog vest.

Talk about man’s best friend.

Why Give?

My parents, Michael and Gail Towbes, moved to Santa Barbara County in 1957, and from the beginning, they were deeply engaged in supporting the community where they lived. Initially, they donated their time and energy as volunteers, and my sister and I often tagged along. It was just part of who we were as a family.

My parents loved Santa Barbara. Our “American Riviera” was the perfect blend between a sleepy beach town and a cosmopolitan mecca; a unique synergy between an intimate, close-knit community and a sophisticated metropolis. They believed that supporting the organizations that make this place special was our civic duty. Although my parents didn’t talk much about what motivated their philanthropy, they instilled these values in the next generation and led by example. In 1980, my parents founded the Towbes Foundation. That first year, they granted a whopping total of $500. We’ve grown a bit since then and in the past 40 years, the Towbes Foundation has granted over $20 million dollars to more than 400 organizations on the Central Coast. I grew up with philanthropy.

George Mason University economics professor, Zoltan J. Acs, author of the 2013 book Why Philanthropy Matters, notes, “Philanthropy does two things. First, it reconstitutes wealth and second it creates opportunity for others.”

Dr. Acs’s philosophy is at the core of why I have chosen to continue the work that my parents began. It’s a basic responsibility for those of us who have resources to give back to society. I believe in the social justice teachings at the heart of Judaism, embodied in the concept, Tikkun Olam, which translates to “repairing the world.” Tikkun Olam compels us to take individual and collective action to make the world a better place. Philanthropy can be an effective tool to catalyze large-scale social change, particularly when we get out of our silos and collaborate with other funders, government partners, and grantee organizations.

Our goal is to give where we can make the greatest impact and where our investment can provide leverage.

The Towbes Foundation has matured over the years. Historically, like many family foundations, our original giving patterns were unstructured. My parents brought their personal interests to the boardroom and let those passions lead their giving. Although my mom passed away nearly 25 years ago, my father continued the tradition of giving a little bit of money to a lot of organizations. This approach, which I call “sprinkling,” casts a wide net, but without much depth. In recent years, and with the dedication of a talented Board, we have begun to look at grantmaking more strategically.

A wise funding partner gave me some insightful advice shortly after my dad passed away in 2017. This person suggested that, given the complex and systemic nature of social problems, it helps to focus on what you know. If the target of grantmaking is lodged in an area of funder expertise, then the funder can be more of an active partner in the work. This resonated with me.

My background is in education and child mental health. I was a special education teacher before becoming a child psychologist and I maintain a busy child-and family-focused psychological services practice in Santa Barbara. Giving to organizations and collaborations that address child well-being makes sense, and there are plenty of needs here to be addressed. As a result, the Towbes Foundation is undergoing a shift from “sprinkling” and toward focusing our resources in the areas we know. Our goal is to give where we can make the greatest impact and where our investment can provide leverage.

COVID-19 has created a myriad of needs in our community.Simultaneously, the country’s racial disparities, amplified by the murder of George Floyd, have highlighted longstanding inequities.Many of these needs and injustices fall in the areas of our expertise: education, child well being, and mental health. These intertwined crisis points have led me to personally re-examine the ways in which I give. 

I think it’s critical to move away from a transactional approach where the rich (and the white) donate to the poor (and the nonwhite), without really interacting or creating community. My goal moving forward is to focus on long-term systemic change through partnership and collaboration. To quote Dana Kawaoka-Chen, the Executive Director of the Bay Area Justice Funders, “For those of us in a position to redistribute resources, this is a moment in which we must urgently act with moral clarity and choose which side of history we want to be on.”

Making our little slice of paradise in Santa Barbara a better place to live for everyone is at the center of why I give. It’s meaningful work, it strengthens community, and it’s pretty fun.

– Carrie Towbes