Larger-than-life entrepreneur Karroll Brent-Edmondson died in Auckland yesterday afternoon, aged 51, after a 14-month battle with cancer.

The award-winning businesswoman was behind the company KT Footwear, which hired long-term unemployed young Maori to make children's shoes in South Auckland.

The former ward of the state - who learned how to read and write only after leaving school - set up the firm in 1991 after returning from Australia, where she ran restaurants and a soup kitchen for expatriate Maori.

She was honoured with membership of the New Zealand Order of Merit five years later.

But KT Footwear struck financial trouble in 1998 and Ms Brent-Edmondson was unable to keep it afloat, despite selling many of her assets, including her Tuakau home.

Several prominent business figures including The Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall and Auckland City Mayor Dick Hubbard pitched in to help her to try to save the company.

Although her business was her life, Ms Brent-Edmondson remained deeply involved with several community projects and charities, even after being diagnosed with cancer in April last year.

"She was a colourful and vibrant personality with a gigantic heart," Mr Hubbard said yesterday.

"She touched the lives of many people and she had a generous spirit and a real affinity with children who were underprivileged or who had got into trouble with the law. She made a big contribution, and she will be sadly missed."

Film maker Rhonda Kite, who told her life story in the television documentary Hell For Leather, said she and Ms Brent-Edmondson first met in the 1970s when working in the same Darwin pub.

"I remembered her vividly because even way back then she was talking about what she could be doing to improve the lot of children who went to school hungry and with no shoes," Ms Kite said.

"She went on to unselfishly achieve her goals, and then some. Karroll was a good woman who did good deeds and none of it came easy; she battled all the way. Karroll has made a positive influence on a great many young people's lives and we can only hope that her work continues."

Otara Economic Development Trust chief executive Josephine Baker described her elder sister last night as a "huge, huge, beautiful tall, tall poppy" who would be missed by the countless people she had helped.

These included children living in two foster homes still running in her name in South Auckland.

"Her challenge and legacy left to everyone is, don't ever give up - she just wouldn't give in," said Ms Baker.

That extended to her battle with cancer, which outlasted by several months the prognosis of her doctors.

A service will be held at Nga Whare Waatea Marae in Mangere late this morning before Ms Brent-Edmondson's body is carried to her home district of Opahi in Northland.

She is survived by her second husband, Bill Robb, two children and three grandchildren.