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Fish where the fish are: Rotorua company Kilwell celebrates 85 years, brings some of its under-the-radar success stories into the light

From Bentley car parts to bomb dismantling robots, yacht masts to aerospace components, fishing rods to some of the most iconic weapons in film history, a Rotorua company is using cutting-edge technologies to supply the world’s best.

Kilwell Sports has a legacy of designing and manufacturing fishing rods. However, many of the products manufactured by its associate business, Kilwell Fibretube such as weapons for the Star Wars movies tend to go unrecognised – in some cases even to staff.

The wholesale distribution company, Kilwell Sports, founded by the late John L Wells in 1933, has passed through the family and this year is celebrating 85 years of operation, while Kilwell Fibretube is celebrating 50 years of manufacturing.

The birthdays mark a significant milestone for the company, which is using the occasion to open up about its long-standing history of innovation.

Retired director, Jeremy Wells, who served 56 years at Kilwell, says apart from Kilwell fishing rods and Kilwell fresh water lures, the components Fibretube produce are all unbranded, which means most of its products and operations have remained unidentified for a long time.

“The range of tubing components made is endless, many of them are for sporting use, but more and more are being used in industrial application. Many years ago we produced 28,000 squash racquet shafts annually for Dunlop, Slazenger and Spalding. We also made 200 carbon fibre tubes for the Star Wars movie to be used as lightsabres – characters such as Darth Vader and the powerful Jedi Knights are all our customers.

Today, rowing and yachting are the largest consumers of sporting carbon composite tubing. Aerospace, mining and industrial componentry also occupy a significant proportion of production.

“We produced a very expensive tube for an English company and it turned out it was supplied to Bentley for behind their cars seats to stop the car compressing if it rolled. We’ve also supplied an English company with arms for bomb dismantling robots.”

Wells says the company’s longevity is down to good ideas and innovative individuals who are open to change.

“Our creativity has often come about from customer requests. We only ever made fishing rod blanks and customers often wondered if we could make a tube, or something similar to their specifications. Over time, the more requests we got, the more experience we gained.

“For the past 85 years, we’ve been willing to try and satisfy every request and to do so promptly, meaning we have become more knowledgeable in fields other than fishing rods.”

Wells says the recent innovation of 3D printing has shifted creativity internally, with staff coming up with ideas and other ways of working in carbon fibre laminate manufacturing.

He says a major milestone for the company was when his brother, John G. Wells, came up with the idea for Kilwell Fibretube in 1968.

“He had the vision and foresight to move into manufacturing tubular fibreglass fishing rod blanks. Up until then we had imported all the components and made fishing rods with pieces we imported.”

Kilwell Fibretube now runs two shifts a day with 85 percent of its production being exported to more than 20 countries.

The company is now owned and managed by the third generation of Wells family: Amanda Wells, marketing director, and Geoff Wells (sales & procurement director). 

Amanda Wells says the companies’ longevity is down to strong agencies, supported by after sales service, together with innovative manufacturing ideas and a very knowledgeable and loyal workforce.

“Our high staff retention is due to the internal culture and the satisfaction for staff making and selling products they’re passionate and interested in. The annual acknowledgment and celebration of our Staff Service Awards is a Kilwell tradition."

The staff room resembles the RSA with all the long service boards and photos. Numerous staff have reached ten, 20 and 30 years, with six serving 40 years or more.

“Sports has an average of 20 years of staff service and Fibretube 16 years. We have 75 staff in total and are very proud of our staff service record.”

A company with an 85-year commitment to culture, creativity, change and challenging the status quo, even the name ‘Kilwell’ has its’ own legacy story, according to Ms Wells.

“We often get asked where the name Kilwell comes from, as people think the ‘well’ comes from our surname Wells. However, the company was originally called Kelly Rotorua Ltd back in 1933 and we had a brand name called Killwell, which was initially spelt with two ‘l’s’, but that became politically incorrect, so my grandfather decided to drop an ‘l’.

“The name Killwell came from the fishing flies my grandfather made and being British, you either released fish or killed them and he said his flies killed fish rather well. The Kilwell brand became so popular my uncle and father changed the company name to Kilwell in 1985.” 

Kilwell Sports distributes its extensive range of leading fishing and shooting brands nationwide with more than 7,800 product lines. Traditionally a wholesale distributor, it has more recently launched an e-commerce website in partnership with its dealer network.​

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