GRAND RAPIDS — Daniel Wansten is leveraging the Web, a background in commercial real estate, insurance sales and the ministry, and a master’s degree in education to propel a company that aims to navigate families nationwide through the college financial aid system.
“This is sort of a combination of my passions, skills and abilities from my past, and it’s sort of brought together in the company and how we help people,” said Wansten, CEO of Professional Education Services.
The 12-employee firm, located in Cascade Township, provides counseling, both financial and personal, to help teens decide what they want to study, where they’d like to study it and how to pay for it.
The company walks students through the application process, and offers parents tips on how to secure a financial aid package. He frequently conducts workshops to attract customers.
Later this year, Wansten is planning to expand by offering the company’s services nationwide through a financial firm’s financial planners and certified public accountants, although they won’t be allowed to guide parents through any of the 153 tax strategies PES has identified.
“We expect to have 1,650 resellers across the country,” Wansten said. He said he expects the local staff to grow to 65 over the next three years to support the expanding network.
Also on tap: speed-reading courses and preparation classes for the ACT and SAT college entrance exams.
He said PES has invested in a Web-based software system that will automate many services with video, animation and interactive questionnaires.
“Automation is the best way to deliver the highest quality for the lowest cost and still have the human element there,” Wansten said.
“People can have personalized attention when something isn’t addressed in the way they need it. There’s video, text, cartoon — there’s a variety of interactive processes. We have a bunch of software we’ve customized and created and built that will be available to their representatives. We’ve had a huge investment in technology and software development.”
Wansten grew up in the area that became Kentwood, graduating from East Kentwood High School in 1977. His father, Harry, was in finance and insurance, and his mother, Marilyn, was a legal secretary who took time off to raise her six children.
“I got my first job at McDonald’s because the manager had a crush on my sister,” Wansten recalled. “I was the worst employee you ever could have hired. I stood there; I was worthless. I didn’t know what I was doing.
“When I was 18, I became a salaried manager with the corporation. I had 100 employees and six assistant managers. I went from the worst employee to one of the youngest managers they ever hired — after a light clicked.”
Company: Professional Education Service
Family/Personal: Wife, Rebecca, a homemaker; four daughters, ages 12 to 26
Biggest Career Break: Being allowed to pursue his entrepreneurial dream while still employed.
He used his early business indoctrination to become a landlord, he said.
“From there, I realized I wanted to go to college and do other things.”
He eventually assembled a list of higher education experiences: Davenport University; North Central University, a Pentecostal school in Minneapolis, Minn.; Bethel Seminary in both St. Paul, Minn., and San Diego; and Cornerstone University, where he completed a master’s degree in education, thinking he might teach at the college level.
Becoming a husband and father in his early 20s, Wansten, while still in college, secured a job in commercial real estate, creating deals for real estate investment trusts in Minnesota and California.
“I would buy real estate on behalf of investors, manage it, sell it. Many times they would sell it to themselves with different partnerships and things like that. I learned all of that process over the next 10 years or so.”
While in California, Wansten served as a minister for the North County Christian Center near San Diego.
He returned to Grand Rapids with his family in 1988. He became pastor at the Calvary Assembly of God church near Rockford. Eventually, he decided to step away from the ministry, and took a sales job with Northwestern Mutual.
“I was a pastor for a while. I really wanted to care for and help people, but that wasn’t to be my full-time direction,” Wansten said. “I’m a little bit more driven, so it wasn’t the perfect mold. I don’t think I want to necessarily just deliver strawberries and listen to all the woes. I’m just not wired that way. I want to take action. I want to do something.”
He knew he wanted his own business, and, based on his own experience, he started advising people on financial strategies and tax-related ideas for maximizing the amount of money available to pay for a college education.
“I didn’t see this at all,” Wansten said of PES, which he founded in 1999 and boosted in 2001 with a book called “Cash for College.”
“I thought I’d be a one-guy shop and just helping people every day. It just keeps getting bigger.”