If anyone knows tired and aching feet, it's Jane Cromwell, after she's been working her "bench days" at BioPed in Kitchener.

Cromwell is a certified pedorthist who custom makes orthotics -- or shoe inserts -- for clients with tired and aching feet.

On her "bench days" she is on her feet manufacturing orthotics at her BioPed clinic.

Cromwell owns the BioPed franchise at 842 Victoria St. N., Kitchener, and also is a partner in the Waterloo and Cambridge BioPed franchise clinics.

She has seen thousands of feet and says no two sets are alike, even when they have a common problem, such as plantar fasciitis, where connective tissue at the bottom of the feet is damaged and causing pain.

"You have to figure out what the person is doing, or what is wrong, bio-mechanically, that caused the person to get the plantar fasciitis. Then, you can make the orthotics to accommodate or correct what the feet are doing," Cromwell says.

BioPed stores also sell comfortable, therapeutic footwear made by major shoe manufacturers and Cromwell says a big part of the business is educating consumers, letting them know what to look for in shoes.

As a company, BioPed was started in Guelph in 1981 by Ross Heller, who was part of the Heller & Moisan Shoes business in that community.

Heller is still active in BioPed as a franchisee. He also runs education seminars for family physicians on behalf of the BioPed Footcare Centres network and BioPed Franchising Inc., which now includes 43 clinics and is owned by a group of shareholders.

The vast majority of the clinic owner-operators are pedorthists.

RAPID GROWTH

Robin Schleien, the current BioPed president, says the company has experienced 35-per cent growth in revenues the past two years alone.

About eight clinics have opened in Ontario in the past six months and the company is about to open its first BioPed clinic in the Atlantic provinces.

Schleien says the growth has come partly because of Canada's aging baby boomers, but also because there is more public awareness about preventing foot, back and knee problems.

At one time, orthotics were worn almost exclusively by people over 50, but now younger people are wearing them to prevent foot problems, Schleien says.

"Both my daughters wear orthotics and they are extremely active. It's good for prevention of problems and they find it extremely comfortable," he says.

"We also see athletes, who need to need to be comfortable."

BioPed in Kitchener currently has two pedorthists on the staff -- Cromwell and Jenn Musselman. A third pedorthist is on maternity leave.

The Kitchener BioPed got started 22 years ago and Cromwell worked there as a manager before she became an owner.

In 2001, when the previous owners decided to retire, she and her husband, Bob Crom- well, a regional manager for Loblaw Companies Ltd., decided to buy into the franchise.

"I loved what I was doing, and I just decided that instead of working for someone else, it would be better to run it," she says.

The Cromwells have since partnered with Jeff Wilson, who runs the BioPed franchise at 600 Hespeler Rd., Cambridge, and with Lisa Gallo, who runs a BioPed franchise at the King Northfield Centre in Waterloo.

Cromwell and Musselman also provide a satellite service, measuring people for orthotics at a site run by the Physiotherapy Associates of Stratford.

Bob Cromwell says that from a business perspective, he could see that demand for foot care services and orthotics could only grow.

"Anything to do with the aging baby boomer, whether it's golf courses or anything in health care, is a good business to be in," he says.

He estimates Jane has tripled business in Kitchener over the past 15 years, even with the startup of the two other franchises in the region.

But although pedorthists are in high demand, Cromwell says, orthotics is a competitive business. Other foot care clinics have started as more people begin to understand the importance of orthotics .

And there are other types of certified specialists who treat specific foot conditions and order orthotics for their clients. In fact, even chiropractors now offer orthotics as a sideline.

At BioPed, Jane Cromwell says, the focus is on orthotics, and on a start-to-finish personal service.

"I know the clients. I have seen their feet. I have seen the shoes that the orthotics are going into and I am the one who makes the orthotics here," she says.

The workshop at the Kitchener site has a machine that takes a digital picture and measures the topography of the feet and sends that picture to a milling machine. A variety of materials, including plastic, cork and rubber, are used in making orthotics.

One person may have a flat foot, another may have a wider foot, and another may have one leg shorter than the other. So the orthotics may have to be "dual density," for example, with hard support at the heel and cushioning at the front to adjust for the gait.

Cromwell doesn't just make the orthotic inserts.

In some cases, she must take a shoe apart and rebuild it to provide the proper adjustments for the leg.

Most of BioPed's customers come from doctor referrals. But some learn of the company through friends.

Orthotics are costly -- prices range from about $395 to $450 for a pair.

Many workplace insurance programs will help cover the cost, but Cromwell says some of her clients have no insurance and cover the cost themselves, because "it is important to their livelihood."

Schleien said it's common for BioPed franchises to work with manufacturers, retailers, and other large industries to help employees who are on their feet all day.

OUTREACH POTENTIAL

Bob Cromwell says he believes a lot more of that type of outreach should be done.

After all, if employees are taking care of their feet, it will help prevent short and long term disabilities caused by back or knee pain, he says.

"So as we look to the future to grow, we can see expansion opportunities by working with large employers, he says.

Right now, Jane Cromwell says, her biggest challenge in the business is finding time to do everything.

"I just need more hours in a day!" she says.

Pedorthists are in demand, so finding trained people and keeping them is critical to the business, she adds.

Going into partnership with the Cambridge and Waterloo franchises has worked out well, she adds.

Each site operates independently, "but of course, if necessary, we can help each other out."

Becoming a pedorthist was a career Cromwell says she fell into, accidentally. But after she was trained and began working in the field, she discovered she loved it.

Now, she owns a business where nothing pleases her more than to see customers walking out the door with happy feet.