How Robert Watt went from dealing drugs to transforming snowsports with Intuition Liners

Watt built one of the ski industry’s leading brands by fluke—but also by listening

One can only imagine the look on Robert Watt’s face 30 years ago when, in the prime of middle age, he got pulled over with six tonnes of hashish in his vehicle. At the time, he had a four-year-old daughter at home and a fledgling side project helping two friends design a better ski boot liner. The latter, amazingly, turned out to be his lifeline. Not only did it keep him out of jail, it also turned into one of the most well-recognized and trusted brands in the ski industry. Celebrating three decades in business this winter, Vancouver’s Intuition Liners is now considered by many to make the best snowsports boot liners in the world. But the company’s origin story is as unlikely as they come, full of feuds, mishaps, near-misses and personal redemption. 

Sitting in his apartment on Vancouver’s west side with a sly grin that warms the atmosphere, 80-year-old Watt’s kindly disposition is hard to square with his past life as a black-market marijuana distributor. Everything about the company he’s since built is not just bonafide, but also impressive. It’s managed to turn an honest profit in a tempestuous industry that is famously low on margin, as well as build an unbeatable global reputation. This despite the fact that Watt was never much of a skier himself. After graduating from UBC with a degree in English that he got on scholarship, he was sucked into the underworld of psychedelics. But he maintained a keen interest in problem solving, so when friends Byron Gracie and Herb Lang proposed that ski boot liners—which were made out of carpet foam and pleather at the time—were ripe for reinvention, Watt’s curiosity was piqued. He helped Lang import a container of foam samples from New Zealand and got to work.

One of those samples, it came to pass, had a magical property: it wouldn’t “pack out”—i.e., break down into a sloppy fit. The thermo-mouldable foam could completely fill the void between the foot and the plastic shell with a custom fit. It provided a high level of comfort, outstanding energy transmission and amazing warmth. But it wasn’t until Watt got arrested that he thought it could become a business.

“Needless to say, I was in deep shit,” he says plainly.

Watt needed a job while he worked through his case, so he enlisted friends and family to glue liners together in a warehouse while he spent all his savings on the best defence lawyer in Vancouver. It worked—he got off with 18 months of electronic monitoring and vowed to turn a new leaf. “I felt so awful,” he laments, “having put my future with my daughter at risk.”

Reduced to simpler means, he produced 300 pairs of liners that first year with a small production line that he moved into a warehouse basement on Vancouver’s west side. Throughout, he custom moulded, or “cooked,” the liners in his apartment stove, mostly for Blackcomb ski patrollers and industry professionals—insiders who could spread the word. Because the liners were made from a single piece of folded foam, they started out flat like a pancake and required expertise to form into shape. But, once the liners were fitted, skiers revered them as a godsend.

This made Watt believe that pre-moulding liners could open up a market with original equipment manufacturers (OEM) of ski boots. He hand-carved wooden models of feet and got busy figuring out a process to pre-mould on a mass scale. Once he had that process, he landed contracts to supply liners to ski-boot makers Raichle Switzerland and Nordica, at which point Gracie asked to be bought out. Nordica, meanwhile, tried to duplicate the liners in Europe as part of a licensing deal, but wasn’t able to, so that contract ended. Next, Raichle Switzerland went bankrupt.

It wasn’t looking good—until a Japanese company resurrected Raichle and offered Intuition $50,000 for exclusive rights, plus another $250,000 for delivery. Watt jumped at the deal, but Lang refused to sign it. He believed Intuition needed to experiment with different materials instead.

“I had to meet with the guys from [Raichle]—very serious businessmen—at the Pan Pacific and give them back the cheque for $50,000,” Watt remembers.

Watt then scraped together the cash to buy Lang out and start over again, this time as Intuition’s sole shareholder. It took some time, but he indeed established supply deals with many OEM brands, and the business was finally on its way. But that was only half the plan. He always saw his OEM buyers as publicity for aftermarket sales at the retail point, where Intuition could enjoy far bigger margins. That’s why he never spent a single dollar on advertising. Doing personal fittings in Vancouver and giving away as many liners as possible was his main thrust for R&D and marketing.

Intuition Liners in the past
Intuition Liners in the past

“When people heard about Intuition, maybe through the Yellow Pages or word of mouth, they’d end up in our dungeon basement,” he says. “The people seeking us out tended to be high-level, crazy skiers. And then we’d just hang out for an hour or two and we’d have a relationship. And by the end of the hangout, we’d say, Just take them and give us feedback.”

It turned out the foam was only part of the secret sauce—listening to people and what they wanted out of their liners was the other half. From there, the liners started to make their own waves in the ski world, and by 1997 Intuition had to move production to China to keep up with demand. Then, the you-know-what hit the fan again. Intuition’s New Zealand supplier delivered a defective batch of foam, and hundreds of liners failed. The foam was packing out—the one thing it was never supposed to do. The company had to replace over 800 pairs that year for Italian OEM partner Dalbello, while the foam company denied any problem on its end.

“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” Watt explains. “So I took my last $200,000 American and bought this big, giant press in China.”

He struck a deal with a factory that made shoe midsoles to host the press, and scooped the former production manager from New Zealand to help reproduce the magic foam directly for Intuition. But they spent months getting it wrong.

“One night, when I was quite drunk,” Watt remembers, “I stood up in a restaurant in China, and there were like 200 or 300 people, none of them with us. I said, I’m going to make this foam here if it kills me!”

By the skin of his teeth, he did, and Intuition finally had what Watt describes as a “very dependable, controlled supply of foam, with quality-control monitoring.” All just up the road from where the liners were made. But there was one more hitch in the business’s long-term success, and that was Watt himself. Over the years, despite the popular product he’d made and the deals he’d struck, he’d also peppered in lots of risky behaviour. Like the time he fell in love with a woman half his age and bought her a $36,000 BMW within days of meeting her.

“I believed that if she would only care about me the way I cared about her there would be this invisible wave spread around the world, and all the people in the middle of wars would just lay their weapons down and get to know the guy they’d been shooting,” he says.

Watt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder soon after, and went on medication. That was right before two heart attacks (a third would follow later).

“Once I started to realize that it was all an illusion… yeah, it was frightening,” Watt admits.

Intuition Liners team members with co-founder Robert Watt second from the left and president Crystal Maguire third from the left.
Intuition Liners team members with co-founder Robert Watt second from the left and president Crystal Maguire third from the left.

But through that fog, he’d already made a plan. Years earlier he’d shared a split home with a mother and daughter, the latter of whom was in love with snowboarding. Crystal Maguire was 11 at the time, and her mom’s best friend—who taught her how to snowboard—introduced Watt to the folks behind ThirtyTwo Snowboard Boots, which penned a deal with Intuition. After that, Maguire became like another daughter to Watt (by then he had two of his own). By her 17th birthday, Maguire was working three jobs to make ends meet. So, Watt offered her an alternative.

“None of my kids were interested in the company,” he explains, “and I needed a succession plan.”

Maguire started learning the business inside and out, travelling with him everywhere and eventually co-signing emails, moderating decisions and taking over the company.

“By the time I got to the point physically where I couldn’t get on a plane and fly to China anymore, Crystal was ready,” Watt says, beaming. “Crystal has full executive authority. She doesn’t have to deal with a board of directors. She’s it.”

While it’s been a slow passing of the baton, Maguire has matured the company in all of the ways Watt dreamed about. Today there’s in-house sales, distribution, R&D and fully fleshed-out marketing. More, aftermarket sales are equal to the OEM side of the business now—fulfilling Watt’s original vision.

“It’s so wonderful for Rob to still be here to see the success,” Maguire says with affection in her voice for the now 80-year-old entrepreneur who took her under his wing.

With close to 30 different models in its lineup, Intuition is now relaunching a more refined collection for winter 2023-24, and simplifying its offerings. In some ways, it’s grown too much. While Intuition does a bit of advertising these days, Maguire says grassroots R&D and marketing are still central to its ethos; that’s why it continues to use an in-house fitter, like Watt did back in the day. Being based so close to Whistler and having connections to the rest of B.C.’s bustling ski scene has been crucial to the brand’s development. While sales are strongest in North America, Intuition is now sold in 16 countries, has over a dozen OEM partners and has become a multimillion-dollar company through the post-pandemic outdoor sports boom—doubling in size since the beginning of COVID.

And though its name is synonymous with perfect-fitting boots, the real story is one of humility, determination and redemption.

“I said many years ago, Intuition will be my legacy,” Watt insists. “There will be nothing left behind of my good old dope-dealing days except fingerprints. And Intuition just came out of nowhere to save my ass, because I didn’t want to go to jail and lose my four-year-old daughter.”