Why is Ernie Els in the dog food business? To become ‘the Paul Newman of autism’

ORLANDO — When Ernie Els and his wife attended the 2023 Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Liezl, a self-described dog nut, kept returning to her husband with a different four-legged friend in her arms and, with her best puppy-dog eyes, inquired about bringing that rescue home.

“By the third time the dog was in the car,” said Ernie, giving new meaning to his nickname The Big Easy.

Els had a dog named Hogan as a kid in South Africa and since marrying Liezl has added breeds such as Great Danes, Labradors, St. Bernards, Labradoodles and Frenchies to their various homes in England, South Africa and the U.S. But being dog people doesn’t begin to explain what Els was doing at a worldwide gathering of the pet industry and marketing Ernie Els Champion Pet Treats.

“People laugh at me like what the hell are you doing?” Els said. “I feel there’s something there.”

Indeed, there is. According to the American Pet Product Association, the North American pet food industry dominated 37 percent of the global pet food market and is growing at a compound annual rate of 4.4 percent. In 2021, pet food treats and snacks recorded the highest sales, reaching a value of $50 billion, and are growing at a faster rate than any other pet care category. Similar to an increasing appetite for premium treat and snack products for human consumption amongst consumers, this has filtered through to the pet treat industry. More than ever before, pets are seen as part of the family and pet owners want to feed their animals high-quality pet food.

Ernie Els at a booth for Ernie Els Pet Products. (Courtesy Ernie Els)

As for how Els found his way into this business partnership, it dates to the 2019 Els for Autism Pro-Am, where he played in the fundraiser with friends Sheldon Golub and Bill Deutsch. Golub distributes private-label pet treats while Deutsch is a wine importer, distributor and owner of the Yellow Tail and Josh wine labels. (Deutsch’s son Peter partners with Jim Nantz in The Calling wine label.)

Golub always wanted to have a brand for his pet treats and asked Els if he’d be interested in attaching his name to it. Els and his business manager did their homework and learned that it is a thriving business and put together a business partnership originally under the name Ernie Els Champion Training Treats. They realized the opportunity could be much bigger than just treats and renamed the company and the website Ernie Els Pet Products. Launched in November 2019, the pet treats were being test-marketed in California by Kroger stores under Ralph’s label when COVID-19 hit. They struggled to get supplies from their distributor but an even bigger stumbling block for the fledging startup was the death of Golub. In 2021, Mark Segal, Golub’s son-in-law, phoned Els and Deutsch and said he still believed there was a great business opportunity to be wrapped around philanthropy and they agreed to move forward.

“The pet industry is bigger than the baby industry,” Segal said. “A very small piece of it is a big business.”

They launched the all-natural dog treats, which come in various flavors such as chicken and beef jerky and need to be refrigerated once opened, at the 2023 PGA Merchandise Show. Pro shops display it in steel range buckets and it is available online at Chewy.com, the company’s website (ErnieElsPetProducts.com), and at retailers such as Harris Teeter. A licki mat with a putting green, leashes and collars in four patterns are also available. Celebrity endorsers in the space include Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, and model Kathy Ireland was behind a previous effort.

“It’s a lot like our wine,” said Els, who started his eponymous wine label 20 years ago in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. “If you have a bad wine, people remember you as a brand with a bad wine, so your name gets a big hit. Luckily, we’ve got a good winemaker, got a good setup there and the wine has a following around the world. We want to do the same here. I was like, ‘Well, these (dog treats) better be good. We fed samples to our dogs, and they’re going nuts. So we knew it was good because I could see how our dogs were responding.”

Admittedly, it’s a very different business sector for Els to venture into but he noted there’s more of a connection than meets the eye.

“Almost every single golfer I meet, they all have dogs,” Els said. “You see them walk dogs around golf courses all the time. Maybe not so much in the U.S. because you know HOA rules, but in England, South Africa, Scotland, you see over at St. Andrews after the Open has been played, people walk their dogs after the ceremony.”

It’s not only about the pet business but raising awareness for the Els Autism Foundation. On the back of the bags is messaging on the foundation and a link to the website. A portion of proceeds support individuals and families living with autism spectrum disorder, a cause close to Els’s heart.

“It’s a business paying it forward,” Segal said. “I want to make Ernie the Paul Newman of autism.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek