For Janet Garufis, Giving Is Not Only a Responsibility, But a Privilege

By Michael Bowker   |   November 4, 2021

Sometimes, life’s lessons emerge from the most unlikely places. For Janet Garufis – Montecito Bank & Trust’s dynamic chairman and CEO – one such place was her grandparents’ house in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Garufis often went there as a child when her parents were working. “My grandmother and grandfather didn’t have much, but the homeless people who came by occasionally had even less,” says Garufis. “When they came to the door they did not beg for food, they asked for work. My grandmother always had something for them to do and then she would give them a sack lunch and a dollar, which meant a lot in those days. I came to understand that she honored the fact that giving is not just a responsibility, it is a privilege. She taught me that when you give something to someone, you should do it in a way that they feel good about receiving it.”

The idea that giving must be focused on the receiver is at the heart of Garufis’ leadership vision at the bank, which is one of the more generous financial institutions in Southern California. Founded in 1975 by a small group of local businesspeople, it soon became the fledgling dream of Michael Towbes when he became the sole shareholder a few years later. The bank now boasts 14 branches from Westlake to the Santa Ynez Valley. It has more than $2 billion in total assets and donates nearly $1.5 million every year to various philanthropic causes.

Under the leadership of Garufis, who Towbes hired in 2004, the bank continues to blossom. That is due in large part to the fact that communities welcome the bank – it arrives in town as an asset, not a predator. Its ability to innovate an effort to provide solutions can be seen in projects such as Ventura’s Westside community, which had fallen into disrepair. Working with the housing authority in the area, the bank helped secure tax credits and construction loans to help create something that is in scarce supply in California – affordable housing. That is only one of hundreds of other successful business and philanthropic efforts launched under Garufis.

Her own story – from her early dream of being a writer to becoming one of the most influential people in the region’s banking and philanthropic communities – seems unlikely as well, until you get a chance to talk with her. Then an impressive mix of personality, work ethic, vision, and, well – joy – becomes apparent and you see why she is a major reason for the bank’s emergence.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from CSU Northridge, her goal was to someday achieve a PhD in English or writing. Meanwhile, working as a bank teller paid the bills. 

As it turned out, she had a host of natural skills that helped her stand out in the banking world. “I’m process oriented by nature,” she says. “As one of the few women in the banks where I worked, I had to be tough and even fierce when it was called for, and I was. But, most of all it was about solving problems for people.”

Garufis took time away from her everyday routine to attend and graduate from the Pacific Coast Banking School at the University of Washington in Seattle, but immediately returned to Southern California and continued her career.

Her career was satisfying in many ways, but after 30 years in banking, she became increasingly disgruntled with the impersonal nature of the national bank she worked for, which didn’t seem to embrace the idea of women in management. She retired early and decided to pursue her master’s degree and ultimately a PhD in English. She and her husband, Nick Garufis, moved to Santa Barbara in 2002 so she could attend the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara. But when Nick was diagnosed with dementia related to Parkinson’s disease, she put that dream on hold and returned to banking.

When she met Michael Towbes in 2004, things changed dramatically for her, and the Santa Barbara area will always be better off because of it. Towbes interviewed her, and a rewarding relationship was forged based on business interests, philanthropy, and friendship. “Michael’s vision was the reason I came to the Montecito Bank & Trust,” she says. “I say it is simple – to provide world-class service to the community, our associates, and then our stakeholders – but in that statement is an incredible expanse of possibilities, all of them making life better for everyone involved. I loved that, I still do.”

Towbes was clearly impressed by the skills and energy Garufis brought every day, and in 2006, he promoted her to president and CEO. “I was able to share that with my husband, Nick, before he passed away,” she says. As part of her efforts to deal with his passing, Garufis took up long-distance running. She began running marathons when she wasn’t running the bank.

The list of boards she serves on – and awards and accolades she has won – would fill multiple pages, yet one of her most impressive accomplishments isn’t found there. “I’m proud of the culture of the bank,” she says. “We have good people who work together incredibly well.” Most employees freely give their time and effort to various causes. She has also been skilled at helping the bank expand its unusual connection to the community. “The primary driver in choosing which organizations to support is providing help for low-to-moderate income children and their families,” Garufis says. “We are flexible when the need arises, though, and lately we’ve focused on the array of new challenges that we have faced, from fires and the debris flow to the pandemic.”

Under her leadership, the bank management and associates dropped almost everything else they were doing and responded to the chilling threat the pandemic shutdown posed to thousands of regional businesses. They dedicated more than 20,000 hours to communicating with local businesses, taking Paycheck Protection Program applications and securing as much funding for clients and nonclients as possible so they could keep their doors open. When the effects of the pandemic spread throughout the region in 2020, the bank quickly gave gifts to front-line organizations such as Sansum Clinic, the Food Bank of Santa Barbara County, and the United Way of Santa Barbara County, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the efforts. 

With her overall track record of success, Garufis could clearly have sought other opportunities at larger banks around the country, but she feels the real treasures are still here. “Hands down, what I’m doing today at the bank is the reward of my career,” she says. “I’m working with wonderful people who work together incredibly well. They make it easy. When you are in it, getting it done, and being successful, it’s joyful. I have a dream job in a community I love.”

Sometimes, she thinks of her husband, Nick, and of Michael Towbes. “When I wonder what they would think of everything we’ve been able to do to serve and support the community and how the bank has thrived, I believe they would be proud.”

As a postscript, Garufis adds that she just received a letter from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara inviting her to accept an honorary PhD in humanities, thus bringing her dreams full circle. “This journey has been the time of my life, an unbelievable gift,” she says. “I am so grateful.”