September 30, 2023
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Our view: Towbes, Morton, Lacayo were rare type of leaders


In the normal course of business relationships, men and women build companies or lead nonprofits and then retire to leave the operations to a new generation or a new team.

More rare is the circumstance where leaders are so committed to an enterprise or so intrinsically identified with their organization that they stay at the helm for their entire lives.

Three of these rare individuals have passed away in recent weeks – Mike Towbes, Lon Morton and, on May 1, Hank Lacayo.

In each case there are people to carry on the work of these great men. Montecito Bank & Trust and Towbes Group have robust succession plans, Morton Capital Management has a seasoned leadership team and Lacayo has mentored many, many people who will pick up his legacy and soldier on. His union work is permanently memorialized at the CSU Channel Islands center on workforce development that holds his archives and bears his name.

But for many of us it’s not about the work, it’s about losing the smiling face that you encountered at a social event or fundraising lunch or even bumped into at Brent’s Deli.

It’s also about losing a generation of leadership that, while not the World War II generation, came out of a more collegial time, before social media and the disruptions of 21st century technology. A few of their lessons are worth repeating:

Take your work seriously but not yourself. Lacayo was a particularly funny guy who loved to tell stories with a twist of fate that made you realize that just because you are in the presence of a president or cabinet secretary, you don’t stop being yourself. Lacayo was always laughing. Even in the face of a cancer diagnosis, he didn’t lose his sense of humor.

Think for the long term. Morton was well into his career when he sold his company and even longer into his career when he bought it back. He saw the long-term value proposition of his business. Towbes had the same horizon as Warren Buffett when he bought a property — infinity.

Recognize win-win situations and seize them. Lacayo was not the kind of labor leader who wanted to grind businesses into the dust. He wanted a fair deal for his members but never forgot that making a profit is a powerful motive. He saw the inherent dangers of no-growth politics that did not provide for the free enterprise system to flourish.

Patience and the ability to deliver a win-win project to customers and planners was a hallmark of the Towbes era.

These are hard lessons to absorb. But the payoff of sticking with them is a big impact and a huge legacy. And it is important to remember them not just because of the shrill politics of our time but because retirements mean we are undertaking more traditional transitions to new leadership.

We’re making those transitions in academia, in the corporate world and in the non-profit community. It’s important to get them right.

Finally, a note of condolence to Hank Lacayo’s widow Leah and the Lacayo family.

The family has been incredibly generous in sharing Hank with the Ventura County community while he was undergoing treatment for cancer. Lacayo’s legacy of advising corporate CEOs and advancing higher education made him a natural pick for The Business Times Hall of Fame in 2012.

But even at that time we did not realize the extent of his involvement with business and community organizations. Or his willingness to break from a busy schedule and meet with a small business owner who asked him to stop by for coffee or a donut.

It is perhaps for those moments — rather than the White House receptions or black tie dinners — that he will be remembered the most.