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.
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.
Vice President, Philanthropic Services: Tammy Johnson
What We Do
For over 92 years, the Santa Barbara Foundation has been a catalyst for change. We analyze issues to identify challenges that burden people every day in Santa Barbara County. We convene community stakeholders to build coalitions and partner with nonprofits and other leaders working on the front lines. Together, we chart a direction and mobilize people like you to support the dynamic initiatives that makes this a better place, now and for generations to come.
Begin to Build a Relationship
We know you care about where your money goes and how it is used. Connect with this organization’s leadership in order to begin to build this important relationship. Your email will be sent directly to this organization’s director of development and/or Executive Director.
The Foundation is the “community living room,” a place where donors, community members, and leaders of its business, nonprofit, education, and civic sectors can gather, “to discuss and problem solve. Collaboration is layered into everything we do.
LEADERSHIP IN ACTION
The Santa Barbara Foundation leads the effort to bring people and resources together to work for large scale, sustainable improvements in the community. We do that by facilitating dialogue among stakeholders- business leaders, government representatives, leaders of nonprofit organizations, residents and funders who want to create positive change. We look for the chance to form strategic partnerships to leverage our collective strengths and maximize the power of our donor’s dollars. Because we do extensive research into the greatest needs of the community and the people who deliver services, we are positioned to champion specific causes and organizations. We then advocate for the funding to transform innovative ideas into reality. Learn more about our work within the community.
There are approximately 1,900 nonprofits in Santa Barbara County. Even the most diligent donor would find it daunting to try to learn about all of them and vet their work. In partnering with the Santa Barbara Foundation, donors can be assured that we award our grants through a rigorous process of research, planning, due diligence and evaluation. We work to identify and prioritize critical needs for strategic grantmaking requiring special focus and additional organizational resources. Once funded, we monitor and evaluate these initiatives for impact. We are committed to working with providers to maximize their effectiveness. Learn more about our grantmaking.
PARTNERS IN PHILANTHROPY
We are grateful that for more than 90 years the people of Santa Barbara County have trusted us to steward their charitable assets. Our team of philanthropic advisors help donors navigate the logistics of giving, and work with them to create a customized plan that aligns with their goals. As a community foundation, we have a responsibility to expand financial capital by reaching out to individuals and institutions to raise funds. We are committed to pooling our collective resources with those of forward-thinking funders to build scalable solutions. The Santa Barbara Foundation invites and encourages all donors, contributing all size donations, to join us. Learn more and become a Partner in Philanthropy.
SUPPORTING THE SOCIAL SECTOR
The Santa Barbara Foundation believes a healthy, high-achieving, creative social sector enables our county to fulfill its potential. To help make our nonprofits stronger and more resilient, we share knowledge through a series of capacity building workshops, leadership development, and technical assistance programs. We engage with practitioners to develop successful approaches for improved outcomes in the community. We connect them with funders and other nonprofits to make their efforts more powerful. Since this can be a demanding line of work, we recognize and reward hard work and excellence of those working in the social sector. Learn more about the Collaboration for Social Impact.