Katie Sauls knows how one event can change a person's entire life.
In 1993, a tire blew out and her car slammed into a concrete embarkment. Doctors told her she died three times on the table. Her leg was severed and miraculously reattached.
Years of recovery and a life-long struggle with pain was ahead. But Sauls had a choice, she said 25 years later from her home in Pinellas Park: "To either move on from it or not."
Now another moment is coming that could change everything — this time in all the right ways. It's a chance for Sauls to pitch her patented stretchable heating pad, Therma-Stretch, to national buyers at Walmart.
"The next step is possibly amazing, but I always say it's not done until it's done," said Sauls, 52. "But I'll tell ya, I haven't slept the last two nights."
The sales pitch — think of it as ABC's Shark Tank, Walmart-style — is part of the retail giant's commitment to spend $250 billion on American-made products by 2023.
Sauls' chronic pain led to the heating pad products she hopes will be carried on shelves across the country at America's biggest retailer.
Her left leg has a steel bar running through it that goes to her ankle. In the early years of her recovery, Sauls was in a wheelchair. Having to manually turn the wheels strained her shoulders — heating pads offered relief, but wouldn't stay put.
In the late 1990s she had her first idea triggered by the pain: The Kozy Collar, a microwaveable and freezeable pad that fits around the neck to soothe the shoulders. By 2000, she had a patent and was making enough money to support her family. Her business grew to nine full-time employees.
Then the recession hit. By 2007, Sauls had moved her business back home and was selling her products from craft shows and markets.
"The Kozy Collar was like my training wheels," she said.
In 2013, Sauls was struck with a new idea after she woke up with shooting knee pain in her bum leg: a heating and cooling pad that would wrap and stretch so it could be secured with Velcro around different parts of the body.
She debated ramping up a new product line to sell under a new company until her adult children — Holly and Jonathan Small — told her they'd be behind her.
Now Sauls' Livell Co. — meaning live well — is a family business in Pinellas Park, where son John works full time. They sell a line of heating pads on their own website and Amazon. Sauls is even making an her debut on HSN Tuesday night.
Sauls' family has been key to her success. Her daughter's legal background and son's IT knowledge helped establish a solid foundation for her business.
And it was Sauls' sister, Fran O'Connor, who filled out the application for Walmart's open-call contest — which could be biggest break the family business has ever had.
On June 13, Walmart buyers will meet with small suppliers from across the country at its national headquarters in Arkansas.Last year, 500 companies met with Walmart through the same entrepreneur program.
Hayley Jackson, one of hundreds of Walmart buyers who bring new products to the chain, held supplier meetings with those chosen from open-call applications like Sauls'.
The process used by Walmart since 2013 seems similar to Shark Tank, but Jackson said there are a few key differences. Mainly, Walmart isn't investing in these brands, but agreeing to carry their products.
"The first thing we want to find out is: What's their story? They're all so passionate," Jackson said.
Each meeting will last about 30 minutes, Jackson said. Buyers will look for products that are unlike what's already on Walmart's shelves. If the buyer likes the item, it could wind up in from 200 to 3,000 stores, she said.
"My entire life has been prep for this," Sauls said. "Truthfully, when I had that accident it was like divine intervention… it gave me purpose to provide comfort and relaxation for people."
On Thursday, Sauls and O'Connor were invited to a Brandon Walmart to talk about Therma-Stretch. After giving their pitch, they found out they had already been picked for the national sales pitch.
Walmart staffers had a party ready for themin the store's aisle to celebrate, complete with cake and balloons.
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org (727)893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.