Last winter, Lakeville South seniors Joel Varghese and Brandon Sell were putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation, the result of months of research and work.

The presentation was their submission to the DECA Finish Line Challenge, which asked them to critique the sporting goods store's marketing strategy, compare it to competitors and make suggestions for improvement.

The pair showed the presentation to Varghese's dad, a businessman, who told them it was the worst he had ever seen.

In the end, that critique "saved us," Sell said. The two connected with a friend of Varghese's father and quickly tightened up their presentation.

They ultimately won first place nationally in the 2013 competition. A month ago, they competed in the same challenge — and again won first place, out of about 50 teams.

The secret to their success was their content, and how much they knew about the company because of intensive research. "Our ideas were superior and I think we really got what they were asking," Varghese said.

Varghese said Finish Line executives told them their project was "on par with MBA students."

Both students are officers and longtime members of DECA, an international club that prepares high school students for careers in business fields, at Lakeville South. DECA members compete in local and state competitions and can also participate in national contests like this one, sponsored by Finish Line.

They have also been friends since sixth grade, Varghese said, which was helpful because the project required so much teamwork. Varghese is the brains behind the research and presentation, while Sell handles the technical side, including creating the PowerPoint presentation and the video required in the competition's first round.

While she offered them tips, "They came up with the ideas and they did the work," said Ann Myers, a business teacher and DECA co-advisor. "They did an awesome job."

This competition was the first time Lakeville South students have won a national DECA "corporate challenge" like this, said Alissa Danielson, DECA president.

Varghese said they are the only team in the Finish Line competition's five-year history to win twice. As a prize, the pair will again attend this year's DECA International Career Development Conference in May to receive their award, all expenses paid.

Hobnobbing with executives

The DECA Finish Line challenge asks students to analyze the company's "omnichannel strategy," or how it markets products in stores, online, on mobile devices, via social media and in print media. Varghese and Sell looked at what competitors were doing and then came up with things the company could do differently. They amassed more than 35 pages of notes and spent 60 to 70 hours on the project this year, they said.

They first created a YouTube video summarizing their ideas. Because of the video, they qualified for the next round of competition at the company's headquarters in Indianapolis, where they presented for 30 minutes to a room of 25 Finish Line executives.

"This year, specifically, we talked about change. And ... the catalyst of that is technology," Varghese said.

They focused on social media and mobile devices, figuring that their perspective on those areas is completely different from 40-to-60-year-old executives, they said.

"This year, we found out they really use our ideas," Varghese said. One of their recommendations was that the company have a presence on a certain social media site. Within two weeks of this year's presentation, Finish Line had joined the site, he said.

The best part of competing, though, was their hands-on exposure to corporate America, Varghese said.

"We learned a lot about the business world in general and how it worked," Varghese said. "I mean, how many 17- or 18-year-olds get to present to a room full of executives of a billion-dollar company?"

"We were treated like consultants so we actually got to experience what it was like in the real world," Sell said.

Varghese said that in college, he wants to study business, specifically how companies manage the massive amounts of data now available. Sell is interested in both engineering and business, he said.

Being a part of Lakeville South's strong DECA program — with 100 members, the school is among the 10 largest in Minnesota — has helped them get a head start on future careers.

"We have a lot of great business people here," Varghese said. "[Through DECA], a lot of their kids can get a taste of that."