Fresh off a plane from New York but without a hint of jet lag, Michael Towbes settled into a chair at the end of a long wooden table, looking as comfortable in a tailored suit as most people are in pajamas.
At 86, the longtime Montecito resident, real estate developer and prolific philanthropist explained he would never retire.
Towbes and his wife, Anne, made a deal a few years back that he could keep firing on all cylinders if the couple spends time away each month.
For February, it was their condo in New York City. Later this year, it’ll be Japan.
In a surprising choice, last fall the trip was to Burning Man, a festival in the Nevada desert where the daring display eccentric art and discover vehicles designed like dragons or cupcakes.
As a lifelong learner, Towbes invokes a “Why not?” mantra — one that has turned the white-haired senior into the storied tycoon who has transformed the landscapes of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties over the past six decades.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been touched in some way by the work of The Towbes Group, his namesake firm that has developed more than 6,000 residential units, currently managing some 2,500 units along with more than 1.8 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space in the tri-county area.
Others know Towbes from his role as co-founder and chairman of the board at Montecito Bank & Trust, which has assets of $1.2 billion.
As The Towbes Group celebrates 60 years in 2016, locals are reflecting on the impact the native East Coaster has had in the community.
His colleagues and friends are even working to get him his own Wikipedia page.
All of that is nice, and Towbes is nothing but grateful. He just doesn’t like the attention.
“I would be just as happy without the big party,” Towbes said in his downtown East Victoria Street office. “I like being busy. I still love what I do.
“The development business is a challenging one. We fortunately have been able to be in this business 60 years.”
Towbes developed a thirst for learning at a young age, walking the four blocks from his childhood home in Washington, D.C., to the library. His father was a lawyer, and his business partner was a builder.
Towbes studied civil engineering at Princeton University and MIT. He spent time in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps during the Korean War and eventually moved to Los Angeles with his first wife, Gail, who died in 1996.
Since his arrival in California, Towbes has taken a wait-and-see approach to development that has kept The Towbes Group sustainable because of properties that derive income (rent).
He started building homes in Los Angeles in 1956 before learning of the housing boom in Santa Barbara County.
His business partner, Eli Luria, was the idea man. Towbes was the numbers guy.
“I think I’ve done a lot of projects in this community I’m really proud of,” Towbes said, highlighting his effort to rebuild The Granada Theatre 10 years ago.
“I think my favorite part is apartments. The only thing I like more than groundbreakings are ribbon cuttings.”
Goleta City Councilman Michael Bennett said he couldn’t think of anyone else who has left as big an imprint on development in Goleta.
The Calle Real Shopping Center has become an epicenter of the city, he said, and the apartment housing stock has helped working families.
“He’s always a tough negotiator. At the end of the day, I think he’s very fair. I truly believe he loves the community.”
Towbes is working to finish the final phase of Willow Springs apartments, and designs are going through the channels for an adjacent 360-unit Heritage Ridge project, dedicating 132 units for seniors.
Bennett said it’s just happenstance that all these developments are going on simultaneously.
“After sixty years, our mission remains the same: to make our corner of the world a better place, one project, one idea and one person at a time,” said founder Michael Towbes.