Lora Mohr literally grew up in the handbell manufacturing business, Malmark, Inc., that her parents started in 1973. After having her children, she returned to working part-time at the Plumsteadville manufacturing facility in 1986.
“Before you know it, it developed into full-time,” Mohr said.
When her father, Jake Malta, died in 2010, Mohr and her sister became co-owners of the family business. As her sister contemplated retirement, Mohr began mentoring with Steve Wolfson of SCORE Bucks County to get assistance transitioning the business to sole owner.
“Steve was involved with the valuation,” Mohr said. “He’s always been available, at all times.”
Wolfson, an entrepreneur with 40 years of wholesale distribution experience, is confident that Malmark will thrive for the next 50 years.
“Lora’s years of working for her father in production are paying off and … is taking this unique company to a higher level,” Wolfson said. “Bells are ringing louder in churches, choirs and performances globally with Malmark products.”
Wolfson also assisted Mohr develop an organizational chart and welcome the third generation to the business via her son, Derek Mohr, who since October, has shared the role of vice president with Kathy Ebling Shaw.
Like his mother, Derek has worked at the family business “since I was little.”
“I would do odd jobs around the factory,” he said.
As the company celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall, Derek said he had no doubt that the business his grandfather started would continue.
“I knew Malmark would last as long as it has,” he said. “It’s a niche business. The handbell is an exclusive, multi-tasking instrument and historically significant. It’s not easy to make.”
In fact, Malmark has only one other competitor in the U.S. And Malta had worked there as an engineer and in 1963 designed the Schulmerich bell, the first American handbell before leaving to start his own company. Malta is regarded as the “father of the American handbell.”
Churches, along with community choirs and the education sector represent the company’s largest client base, according to Ebling Shaw. Malmark handbells are sold and shipped internationally.
The company manufactures “tens of thousands” of bells each year, but rejects approximately 40 percent due to sound quality, she said.
“Our standards are extremely high,” Ebling Shaw said.
In addition to handbells, Malmark began making handchimes in 1982. The introductory instrument is geared for young children and is a more affordable precursor to handbells.
Throughout the decades, Malmark has evolved and strived to remain relevant. Perhaps the biggest changes came in the wake of the pandemic. Malmark persevered a month-and-a-half-long closure and adapted, shifting to four 10-hour workdays for its 30 employees.
COVID restrictions and concerns early on changed the company’s market. With worship services being conducted virtually, the average handbell choir dropped from 13 to about six or eight, Ebling Shaw said, leaving many unsure how they could ring with fewer people and have the same impact.
“There were a lot of community choirs who couldn’t sing during the height of the pandemic,” Ebling Shaw said, adding that handbells are non-aerosol. “They could chime together instead. We were right on it. We saw the needs. We kept the pulse of the musical community and tried to find ways to accommodate them.”
Looking ahead, Derek said the company is creating new instruments that are more affordable, better sounding and a more compatible addition to the bell choir. Malmark is working to make instruments out of aluminum as well.
Instruments used in yoga and meditation are also on the horizon, as are informational webinars, including teaching and ringing sessions, Lora said. Malmark also recently began offering tours of its manufacturing facility again.
“We have a strong foundation,” Lora said. “That’s what keeps us going.”
Ebling Shaw would like to see handbells used in the professional music arena and be embraced more readily in Europe.
“Over the next 50 years we would also love to expand the audience for handbells beyond churches, schools and community groups,” Ebling Shaw said. “We’re always trying to open new markets and create new audiences.”
Learn more about the business at SCORE Bucks County.