Episode 592: Bell Wars : Planet Money The two biggest handbell companies in the world have been locked in a feud for decades. Why? | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
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Episode 592: Bell Wars

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Episode 592: Bell Wars

Episode 592: Bell Wars

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: I was talking the other day with Dean Karlan. He's an economist who has studied why people donate money. And as we were talking, he mentioned this sort of econ 101 question that is useful in thinking about this. The question is, when we're far away from home and eating out, why do we leave a tip?

DEAN KARLAN: Why would you ever pay? I don't live in this area. I don't have to worry about this waiter, you know, spitting in my food the next time I come.

GOLDSTEIN: But of course, we do tip, even when we'll never be back again. And Karlan says we tip for a pretty straightforward reason.

KARLAN: If I don't pay, I feel like crap. If I pay, I feel content with myself.

GOLDSTEIN: I was talking to Karlan about this because now is the time of year when we ask you for money. You don't have to pay to listen, but a lot of people who listen to PLANET MONEY do pay. They donate to NPR, not because they have to, but because it makes them feel good. So if you can spare a few bucks, please go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Thanks very much. Quick note - today's show is a rerun. It first ran in 2014.


A few years ago, Jonathan Goldstein had managed to save up enough money to do what he'd always dreamed of - buy a small company. He wanted it to be a company that actually made something, some physical object. And he wanted there to be some secret in how it was made, some magic in the process. He found something that seemed perfect - a small factory located on a grassy hill in rural Pennsylvania. It made these.


KESTENBAUM: Handbells.


KESTENBAUM: Yeah, the kind you hear around the holiday season. Jonathan went to visit the factory to talk to the people there. The bells were beautiful, musical perfection. But he says it turns out there was a handbell competitor just down the road.

JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: And I said, so tell me about this other company. And they kind of looked around at each other and sort of said, well, you know, historically we didn't get along too well.

KESTENBAUM: That, it turns out, was an understatement. The two bell makers had basically been at war. The more Jonathan looked into it, the weirder it all was. Handbells, after all, are about playing nicely with others. Maybe you've seen a handbell choir in church around Christmas time or in schools. Maybe you've played in one. Basically you've got dozens or more people trying to play a single piece of music. For it not to sound like a total mess, everyone has to ring the right bell at precisely the right time.


KESTENBAUM: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum. Today we have a special holiday show for you about the epic, decades-long feud between the two companies that make just about every handbell in the world and how they eventually made peace.


KESTENBAUM: When you've got two companies down the road from each other making the same thing, you can almost guess the history. Originally there was just one company, but something happened. Maybe someone got angry, somebody left and they started a second business - a competitor. In this case, that someone was a man named Jake Malta. In the 1960s, he worked at what was the only bell shop in town, a place called Schulmerich. And Jake was Schulmerich's chief engineer.

JOANN MALTA: His library was full of books on music and nothing was not read. Everything in - that you could see in his office had been read and reread.

KESTENBAUM: This is Jake's daughter, Joann Malta. Her dad, she says, was largely self-educated, the kind of guy that when he got into something, he got really into it. And he became obsessed with bells. He designed Schulmerich's first handbells, but then there was a change in management. Jake Malta didn't get along with the new bosses, so he left. And he could not stop thinking about bells. He thought he had a way to make an even better handbell, a bell of supreme perfection that he hadn't quite achieved at Schulmerich.

I've got to explain a little bit about bells here. A bell, when you ring it, it vibrates and produces this one central note. But you also get these other notes in there - overtones they're called. And Jake Malta wanted to try to get rid of as many overtones as he could. He wanted to make a bell with a very pure sound.

MALTA: That was the challenge.

KESTENBAUM: The holy grail of bells.

MALTA: Yeah.

KESTENBAUM: So he set up shop in the family living room.

MALTA: He had a folding table - two of them - stretched out with all of his drafting supplies on there and then the piano behind him.

KESTENBAUM: He traveled to Europe, studied old books about the physics of bells. He drew lots of diagrams.

MALTA: 'Cause he knew that he could make it better. And, you know, we still believe that he achieved that. (Laughter).

KESTENBAUM: Jake Malta's new bell had a slightly different shape. And - this part is key, so remember it - he removed the little brass nub at the top of the bell where it attaches to the handle, something called the tang. The result, he felt, was a bell that produced an uncommonly pure, clean sound. Malta took his design, and he started a new handbell company not far from his former employer. And he gave it a name like his own, not Malta but Malmark.

So now you had two bell companies. The old one, Schulmerich, selling bells with tangs, and Malmark, Jake's up-start, selling bells with the tang cut off. And before we get to the decades-long war, I'm just going to play you what they were fighting over. This is a Schulmerich bell, the one with the tang.


KESTENBAUM: And this is a Malmark bell, Jake's new bell, with the tang cut off.


KESTENBAUM: I have driven myself crazy trying to compare these two bells. Sometimes I hear a difference, but frankly I think it might just be that I was holding the microphone in a different spot. Here, I'll play them again. Schulmerich bell with tang.


KESTENBAUM: Malmark bell, no tang.


KESTENBAUM: Some experts say they can tell the difference, though they're divided over which one sounds better. The bell wars arguably began in 1976. Here is one of the first shots fired in the war. It's an ad by Shulmerich trying to make the case that their original bells with the tang were better. Here, I'll read.

(Reading) All Shulmerich bells have a tang. This is the raised crown at the top of the bell the gives the tonal brilliance. The Malmark bell, hereafter referred to as brand M, touts the tangless bell, saying it is a new concept in handbell design, tuning and performance. In reality, they are weakening the tonal quality and doing it even more when drilling a hole for the handle placement.

This ad infuriated Mr. No Tang Is Better, Jake Malta at Malmark. In fact, the reason the text of this ad still exists is because it was recorded in legal documents. Jake sued his former employer over it. Now, court cases are a chance for both sides to have their say and to have someone impartial weigh the evidence so you can just move on.

And in this case, the two bell makers did settle and they came up with a solution that seems like it would put all this behind them. Both sides agreed not to compare their bells to the other's bells, which seems like a fine idea, unless, of course, you are in the sales department. It's your job, after all, to go out and talk up your bell.

Kermit Junkert was in Schulmerich's sales department. He says these were kind of terrifying times because, remember, neither side was supposed to compare its bell to the other's, which means he couldn't say, for instance, our handle is solid, theirs is hollow. So the lawyers came up with a work around - special kind of awkward phrases the salespeople were cleared to use.

KERMIT JUNKERT: For example, our handle is not hollow. Well, by saying it's not something, you would refer, or infer, that someone else's handle is hollow.

KESTENBAUM: It's like you were indirectly trash talking the other one.

JUNKERT: Indirectly, of course. I mean, literally, there were legal teams that would write here's what you can say. Here's what you can't say. And that was - that would come about from whoever won the latest lawsuit.

KESTENBAUM: How long did that go on?

JUNKERT: Forever.

KESTENBAUM: There were even, apparently, spies. Kermit says salespeople would be giving their pitch and they'd see someone in the audience watching them like a hawk, scribbling down notes about what they said. And then a letter would come from the other side's lawyers. Here we actually have one. This is from Malmark, the new bell maker, complaining about a Schulmerich sales pitch.

Quote, "it has been brought to our attention that you have been making false and disparaging statements about Malmark handbells." The letter goes on to list those disparaging statements apparently made by the Schulmerich salesperson. Quote, "their handles break frequently. You must jump up and down on ours to break them." Here's another one (reading) there is a problem with polishing Malmark bells. You must only polish up and down. Ours can be polished in any direction.

I asked Joann Malta about this. Did they really have spies in the audience taking notes?

MALTA: I had no idea (laughter). Certainly, you know, at the different conventions and all, I would imagine that our reps attending, if they heard something that was negative about Malmark that it would come back. And I'm sure that happened in reverse too.

KESTENBAUM: It's funny to think about all this fighting happening in front of the customers, who, of course, were musicians and church choir directors and middle school teachers, but that's who the customers were. And the salespeople weren't trying to just sell single bells. They were trying to convince an entire choir to exclusively ring their bells only - go all tang or no, go no tang.

And when Malmark or Schulmerich succeeded in selling a whole set to a big-name bell choir, they'd brag about it. The music you're hearing right now, this is the Arsis Handbell Ensemble - all Malmark bells, not a single Schulmerich.


KESTENBAUM: For years, the tang question hung over the battlefield. Did Jake Malta's innovation really make for a better bell? Or did the bell sound better with a tang? Here's another Schulmerich ad from a court case. This one seems designed to drive Jake Malta totally mad.

Quote, "the tang is the raised crown at the top of each bell and not all handbells have it, but Schulmerich handbells do. The tang's weight and mass help produce fuller tone, greater amplitude.

Note those last words there, greater amplitude - basically louder. Here was a scientific claim that could actually be tested. So now this conflict, which had consumed management, lawyers and salespeople, spread to the engineering department. Sound engineers at Schulmerich had to try to back up this claim that the advertising department had probably dreamed up. And, remember, these are sound engineers who got into the business because they love music.

They want to be creating the most beautiful instruments they can and now they've been dragged into an ugly lawsuit. They had to build all this testing equipment, including a robotic ringer that hits the bell with exactly the same force every time. Gregory Schwartz was one of the engineers who worked on it, though even remembering the whole episode makes him kind of weary. He says the tang did make a bell louder, but not much.

GREGORY SCHWARTZ: You're only looking at a percent or two, maybe something like that.

KESTENBAUM: It was a couple percent louder.


KESTENBAUM: (Laughter).

SCHWARTZ: Is the average Joe going to know the difference? I don't think so.

KESTENBAUM: It wasn't even like it sounded better. It was just slightly louder.

SCHWARTZ: Right, that's basically it, but that was the premise, yeah.


SCHWARTZ: Our bells with tangs produce more sound, oh yeah. And the other side said bologna. That's not true. And we said yes, it is true.

KESTENBAUM: Like all wars, this one consumed an enormous amount of resources. In researching this story, I could not keep track of all the lawsuits. There were just too many, but Gregory told me about this one that is worth mentioning.

It was over a patent on the clapper mechanism - the thing that actually hits the bell and makes it ring. The case got appealed and appealed until it was at the doorstep of the highest court in the land - the U.S. Supreme Court.

SCHWARTZ: The judges - they just kinda threw the whole thing out and said no, no, we're not going to waste our time with that, but they - that went back and forth for years. It was just horrendous.

KESTENBAUM: The U.S. Supreme Court.

SCHWARTZ: Yep. They tried it. They tried it.

KESTENBAUM: I think, normally, when you read about lawsuits between companies, you think that they're the result of some business calculation, some strategic decision. And maybe that was true at the beginning, but pretty soon emotions got involved. Once you get in a fight like this, once you spend a lot of money on lawyers, it's hard to give up. The long wars can be the hardest to end, especially if things get personal.

I can see being Schulmeich, the original handbell company, thinking who does Jake Malta think he is cutting off the tang - that's so silly - and setting up his own bell company? And it's easy to imagine how maddening things must have seemed on the Malmark side. Joann Malta told me it's totally understandable her dad, Jake, would try to take the bell fight literally to the Supreme Court. He felt really wounded and wronged. Things got ugly in court. You stole this from me. No, you stole it from me.

It still sort of bugs you to think about it, huh.

MALTA: It does because my dad was a very honest man, absolutely. He was going to go to seminary (laughter). You know, he was not the kind of person to steal anything, so yeah.

KESTENBAUM: Was the handbell ringing world out there aware of all this?

MALTA: Oh, yeah (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: This is perhaps the most amazing part about the story to me. I kind of imagine that the bell ringers, all those choir directors and teachers, would be kind of laughing at all this or even be oblivious to it. But it was the opposite. Some of them got totally swept up. They took sides way more strongly than you might imagine. People at both Malmark and Schulmerich remember various incidents. Here's one story from the Malmark side, told by Tim Schubach, who had gone to an industry meeting.

TIM SCHUBACH: I had, unbeknownst to me, mistakenly said hello to a Schulmerich customer from our booth. And the customer continued to walk by. And over their shoulder, not even stopping to acknowledge me, said, we're Schulmerich ringers, in a very kind of condescending way.

KESTENBAUM: In the end, after many, many years of the courts throwing up their hands, Malmark had a kind of victory. Jake Malta was awarded $2 million. Though, that was a lot less after the legal fees. His daughter says he put a lot of the money into a handbell education fund. There are wars that end because one side surrenders. And then, there are wars where no one gives in. There isn't even a truce. The two sides just stop fighting. A day passes, then a year, then another year. Jake Malta, the proud perfectionist engineer, head of Malmark, eventually passed away. And so did the people calling the shots at Schulmerich. A younger generation took over. Tim, who you just heard, came to run Malmark. And last summer, he got word that someone new had bought Schulmerich, someone who seemed like a very odd fit for the bell world.

SCHUBACH: When I first heard, I'm like, what? What's going on here? This is the craziest story I ever heard.

KESTENBAUM: Schulmerich had been bought by Jonathan Goldstein, the guy you heard at the top, a former lawyer who knew nothing about handbells.

GOLDSTEIN: I knew less than nothing. I can't even read music.

KESTENBAUM: Also, Jonathan's Jewish. There aren't a lot of handbells in synagogues.

GOLDSTEIN: Very famously for my employees, right after I bought the company, I brought one of my rabbis up here thinking, you know, maybe I've missed something. And I showed him the bells. And I said, how about it? And he looked around the room in his very long beard. And he sort of took a minute or two and said, no, no, never, not going to happen, no. Jews just don't do this. It's just not done. (Laughter). It was quite a moment.

KESTENBAUM: Shortly after Jonathan bought the company, he and Tim, the new heads of both companies, found themselves at the same meeting in Cincinnati.

SCHUBACH: He came up in his very Jonathan way. And was - he's not bashful at all, you know. He's very gregarious and came up and, hey, I'm Jonathan Goldstein. And I just bought Schulmerich. And I'm like, oh, hey, what's up, man? How are you? How's it going?

GOLDSTEIN: So I said, you know, hi. (Laughter). Wow. My understanding is that these two companies went at it hammer and tongs for a lot of years. And I'm just not ready to do that. I said, it seems me that, you know, you're not my enemy. And I'm not your enemy. The enemy is the 300 million people out there who don't ring handbells. (Laughter). And, you know, let's go get those people and show them what a great instrument this is and get them ringing.

KESTENBAUM: And this meeting between the heads of the two companies did not go unnoticed. If there were a weekly handbell gazette, this would be front-page news, historic peace accord.

GOLDSTEIN: We were observed just sort of sitting off in a corner talking. And the whole place was a titter at the fact that we were even talking to each other. It was simply not done for, like, 20 years.

KESTENBAUM: Jonathan and Tim seemed to actually like each other. And in that meeting, they talked about working together where they can.

JUNKERT: It was - it was so welcomed. It was just like this great weight coming off of our chests.

KESTENBAUM: This is Kermit again, who did sales for Schulmerich. As is often the case after a long war, the soldiers were eager for peace.

JUNKERT: You know, we kid about it is as being the Hatfields and McCoys, but it literally felt that way. You know, it's like whoever had the bigger guns and take no hostages and just obliterate the other side.

KESTENBAUM: All over handbells.

JUNKERT: All over handbells. It's amazing, isn't it? Who would've thought? Had I not lived through it, I would've thought it - if you were to write a book about this, I think most people would say, no, that didn't happen.

KESTENBAUM: It did happen. And it was over. When I talked to Kermit, he had just gotten a Christmas card from Malmark. It's a first, he wrote to me in an email, cool. And maybe this has occurred to you. It's occurred to me. And it's occurred to Jonathan. Does the world really need two handbell companies? You've got two businesses that basically make identical products. Maybe now that the bitterness is gone, there should be a wedding, a merger. Maybe Malmark and Schulmerich should become M&S Bells. I'm not sure that's going to ever happen because having two companies kind of benefits everyone. People at Malmark and Schulmerich told me, OK, the bell wars were bad. But they kind of liked knowing they had a competitor down the street. And if you're someone who rings bells, it is so much more fun to be able to pick sides. Which bell sounds better, the one with the tang or the one without?


KESTENBAUM: This is the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, one of the few choirs that mixes Malmark and Schulmerich bells.


KESTENBAUM: We would love to hear what you think of today's show. You can send us an email, planetmoney@npr.org. Our show today was produced by Jess Jiang. Thanks, Jess. I'm David Kestenbaum. Thanks for listening.

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