If anybody can tell you about the company culture at Farrelli’s Wood Fire Pizza — winner of the 2014 “Top Places to Work” title in the Large Companies category — it’s Clayton Krueger.

By his own admission, he’s a direct product of it.

“I personally started with the company as a dishwasher in 1995, when I was 16 years old,” Krueger said. “Now, I’m the director of marketing and communications.

“And my story’s not unique within the company,” Krueger said. “Most of the people at our original location back in the mid-90s, we’re now the leaders in our company.”

That’s true of Mike Rutledge, Farrelli’s director of kitchen systems. And Rob Rasussen, director of design and promotions. And James Mickelson, director of information technology and project management.

“We look at all the kids that are being hired now as dishwashers, and we don’t ever hire just the next dishwasher for our company. We’re always hiring the next manager, the next leader, the next potential owner for our company. That’s the way we look at it.”

It’s a philosophy that started with owners and co-founders John and Margaret Farrell, who started the business as Farrelli’s Pizza and Pool Company in Lacey in 1995 with daughter Jacque.

Today, Farrelli’s is much more than your mom-and-pop pizza place. With seven stores — soon to be eight — spread around Lacey, DuPont, Sumner, Tacoma, Parkland and Maple Valley, the company is an already notable local presence in an industry dominated by national chains. Still, Krueger said, the company has never lost sight of the family feel that helped it through the formative years.

“We still are indeed a working family, even now,” said Krueger. “Our mission statement is ‘to use our business system to create vibrant working families to nourish neighborhoods. There’s three components to our mission right there, and that middle one — to create a working family — is really something that we focus a lot on.”

With Farrelli’s employing 42 full-time workers and some 300 part-timers, the Farrells have a lot of family members all over the South Sound.

Not, of course, that being part of the Farrelli’s family means employees get a free pass. The Farrells, Krueger said, have built a company culture with an expectation that new hires come in ready to contribute to the chain’s long-term goals.

“In the working family, you have to earn your seat at the table,” he said. “And everyone respects that, and everyone knows the guy next to you’re trying hard for the common purpose of our company.”

To fuel that, Farrelli’s has instilled a philosophy of transparency evident from day one, explained Farrell.

“Everybody always knows where they stand from the beginning,” Krueger said.

“In our kitchens, we have a detailed training program and schedule designed to advance our entry level cooks and transform them into certified ‘pizza artisans.’ Along the way during that process, they earn different colored chef hats and pins to put into their hats that designate their level of comprehension of the art of pizza making.

“The level achieved directly correlates with the kitchen pay scale. Essentially, what this has done is given clear, attainable targets and goals for training. This motivates our artisans because they know the faster they can advance through the comprehension/color/pin levels, the faster they can positively impact their own pay rate. This also makes it more equitable to determine who should get a pay raise and when by removing seniority from the equation and solely focusing on talent.”

This philosophy applies to the front of house, as well.

“We have a server apron system that has different logos imprinted on them,” said Krueger. “When the servers advance through their training they earn new aprons. Since they are commissioned sales staff, the aprons do not come with pay increases, but rather additional perks which directly affect their ability to increase their pay, such as better shifts and preferred scheduling. All of this helps to inform our crews of exactly where they stand and what they need to do to get where they want to be in our company.”

It’s important to set clear goals for your team when you employ so many young adults, Krueger said.

“We help young people by instilling a set of core values, teaching them a work ethic and giving them a sense of purpose and figure out who it is that they came to us to be. Some of them stay with us a long time, like we did. But even if they don’t, while they’re here, they’re a part of our working family — and that’s part of what you do with your family. You teach.”

The company has also instituted clear, merit-based incentives, like a “bonus pool” of roughly $3,000 at each location.

“Depending on how well the store manages their costs and how hard and effectively they work at increasing their sales, a percentage of that money pool — up to 100 percent — is distributed amongst the non-tipped staff members depending on their hours worked during the quarter,” explained Krueger.

It’s a policy that garnered praise among the judges of this year’s competition.

“I like their concept of a bonus pool at each store based on objective metrics the employees can influence,” said Sabrina Robison, 2014 Top Places judge and senior vice president of human resources at Heritage Bank. “I like that it is a bonus plan which is shared among non-tipped staff. To me, this illustrates the metrics associated with this bonus illustrate a company taking the time to ensure their staff understands what drives profitability and store success. The employees have more buy-in to decisions when they understand why decisions are made.”

Farrelli’s practices also haven’t gone unnoticed among its staff, who raved about their workplace in the Business Examiner’s anonymous employee survey.

“Our company does the right things and does things right,” wrote one Farrelli’s team member. “There is a difference, and they’ve taught me that. We have a strong sense of purpose to our work. Our mission and values reflect that purpose, and as a result are not just a plaque that collects dust on a wall. We live them daily in every decision we make.”

“My organization has made sure that I have everything I need to be successful,” added another. “We create leaders, not bosses.”