By Karyn Scherer



On the fence outside 38 Holmes Road in the South Auckland suburb of Manurewa is a small, scruffy sign which says simply "KT Footwear.

Given this tiny factory's high public profile, you almost expect something grander. But as most people know by now, KT Footwear is not the kind of business to splash out on its corporate image.

It was a New Zealand Herald reporter that first "discovered the firm's founder, Karroll Brent-Edmondson, in 1991. The reporter was impressed by her story: returning to New Zealand after 20 years of running restaurants in Australia, the former state ward was shocked to see children running around South Auckland barefoot, and began recruiting the long-term unemployed to make shoes.

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The experiment appeared to be working, and in less than a year, she was employing 15 people. Before long, the factory's profits were also helping to provide lunches for hundreds of local schoolchildren.

In 1995, Brent-Edmondson was named the inaugural Maori Businesswoman of the Year. The following year, she was honoured in the Queen's Birthday Honours for her services to business and the community.

Eight months ago, however, her dream turned into a nightmare. A combination of factors, including poor management and a faulty batch of raw materials, saw the company plunge into debt.

One creditor tried to get it wound up, but she refused to give in. In desperation, she sold almost everything she owned, including her fabulous house on a 6ha property near Tuakau, and her car. The irony is painful: the woman who is renowned for welcoming hundreds of deprived children into her home is now homeless herself. For the time being, she is living at her factory.
"I got rid of every single thing I possibly could to keep the factory going, just to show people in business that a Maori or Pacific Island woman will go to the ends of the earth to make sure that they're seen as honourable, she explains. To say it hasn't been easy is an understatement. For a while, she couldn't bring herself to go outside the factory gates. Since August, she has left the premises only a dozen times. She is still reluctant to accept speaking engagements, but next week will fly to Australia for her first holiday in a very long time.

What has saved her sanity is the amazing support she has received, from both "ordinary people - like the freezing workers who drove up from Te Kuiti one night to help her sew shoes - and some of the business world's best-known names.

She tells a deeply touching story, for example, about the time the deputy chairman of the Business Roundtable, ASB Bank boss Ralph Norris, set aside two hours to teach her how to say "Schwarzkopf so she could accept a speaking engagement.

She also mentions that her closest friends in Maoridom have been Dame Georgina Kirby and Farmers Deka boss Wayne Walden.

But it is two prominent members of the fledgling organisation Business For Social Responsibility, Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall and cereal king Dick Hubbard, for whom she reserves the most praise.

Hubbard, in particular, helped set up a rescue committee which is still meeting weekly to help steer KT Footwear in the right direction.

"They talk me through everything I do. They pat me on the back when I'm going really well, and they rap me over the knuckles when I'm losing my way. Whenever we get into a situation where things get a bit tough, they come in and stand by us."

Getting the business back on its feet has largely meant going back to the basics, she says. She has also learned to trust her own instincts, rather than taking advice from people she assumed knew more than her.

Her debts are slowly being paid off. She is not there yet, and doesn't expect to be for some time. But things are finally looking up for KT Footwear. Staff levels dropped to as low as eight last year, but are now back up to around 28. Soon, she hopes, the business will begin tackling the export market. If it succeeds, it will mean many more jobs.

"There's a bounce in my step again, a really big smile on my face again, and pride in my heart."

She is aware that her problems are far from unique, and is uncomfortable with her role as a media star. But if her profile helps encourage others to consider the plight of the long-term unemployed, and Maori and Pacific Islanders in particular, and to think about the role of manufacturing in the economy, then she is willing - if not eager - to play the game.

According to the latest information available, 96 per cent of all businesses in New Zealand employ fewer than 20 full-time-equivalent staff (the definition used by the Ministry of Commerce for small to medium-sized businesses).

They pay the wages of 42 per cent of the workforce. And their share is growing. Between 1994 and 1998, the number of people employed by small to medium-sized businesses increased by 13 per cent, compared to 10 per cent for all other businesses.

Firms employing between 20 and 49 staff account for another 11 per cent of the workforce. But not many will remember 1998 as a vintage year. In sharp contrast to previous years, their payrolls actually declined in the year ending in February.

Many of these larger businesses, Brent-Edmondson believes, were manufacturers like herself. Yet she is passionate about her belief that manufacturing does have a future in New Zealand, and that it could provide hope for thousands of Maori and Pacific Island families.

It's all very well talking about boosting education and training, but there are already large numbers of Maori and Pacific Islanders for whom it is probably too late, she says. It is also inevitable that many young people will never develop sufficient skills to allow them to compete for better-paid jobs.

"It's going to take another 20 years before we have the skills to use computers until we're comfortable with them. However, we can use our hands. Manufacturing is the only thing."

She is horrified by the Government's determination to do away with tariffs, describing it as "the most stupid thing anybody has done". Nor does she believe, however, that New Zealand should accept it simply can't compete with cheap labour in other countries.

She doesn't pretend to have all the answers. Her lack of education, she confesses, means it takes her much longer to make sense of things that other people seem to understand easily. But nearly a decade in business has taught her something: she can use a calculator as well as anyone.

"We want to help with the economy. So, it's taken me 40 years and I still can't spell the word, but at least I now know what it means."

Lest anyone mistake Brent-Edmondson for a saint, it is worth noting she also does a nice line in self-deprecation.

TVNZ is planning to screen a documentary about her dramas, Hell For Leather, next month. She is dreading seeing herself on screen, and is particularly worried she will come across as a "horrible, foul-mouthed woman". You have been warned.

But maybe she is exaggerating. While railing against politicians and "clever people" (it is not meant as a compliment), just one mild swear word escapes from her mouth. It is far outweighed by enough warm fuzzy words to bring on a bout of nausea in your average Act MP.

This is one businesswoman who isn't afraid to say "sharing and caring", and not mean it in an ironic way. Her mantra - "every time another person works, another child smiles" - sounds syrupy, but it's hard to argue with.

She confesses she isn't used to thinking of herself as a businesswoman. But that was the "old" her. The "new" her has learned some tough lessons about getting her priorities right.
"I did everything back to front. Instead of putting my head down and putting all my money and energy into the factory and making sure we didn't get into this situation, I was helping children with their exams.

"It was about being experienced, and I learned the hard way... I love the social side - helping the children, and seeing the smiles on their faces.

"Now, I want to be a really good businesswoman, and then the smiles on my children's faces will never come off."