J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson, who is struggling to overhaul the department store company, has risked making his task harder by hiring at least nine other key executives who live a plane ride away.Johnson and Executive Vice Presidents Ben Fay and Laurie Miller commute from California to the retailer's headquarters in Plano, said three people with knowledge of the situation. Chief Creative Officer Michael Fisher and senior design and trends executive Nick Wooster fly from New York, while construction executive Bob Laughrea commutes from Boston, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because of agreements with the company.The company pays for the commutes, they said."For a company that's in turmoil, you really do have to have the senior leaders of a company, if for no other reason than showing face time, show that they're committed, accessible, aware of what's going on there," said Howard Gross, managing director of the retail and fashion practice at executive search firm Boyden in New York. "To have them not be there on a regular basis, I think, sends a very, very bad message."Much hoopla accompanied Johnson's appointment as CEO in November 2011 because he had made Apple's retail chain a powerhouse. Many of the long-distance commuters are former colleagues from Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.Johnson's first year at Penney hasn't gone well. Sales have fallen 25 percent to $13 billion, the lowest since at least 1987, as shoppers revolted against his plan to eliminate sales and radically overhaul the store interiors.But a Penney spokeswoman said the weekly travels aren't affecting the company's performance."Regardless of where our executives are based, their work requires extensive travel visiting stores and distribution centers; meeting with current and potential business partners across the U.S., Europe and Asia; as well as exploring new developments for possible expansion," spokeswoman Kristin Hays said.While most of the company's leaders are based in Plano, "it's important that leaders devote their time and energy on transforming the company wherever their job responsibilities require them to be," she said."Several of the people who currently travel to Plano from other cities are in the process of setting up permanent residence here and are moving to the Dallas area," Hays said. "With all the travel retail leaders do, it doesn't always make sense to uproot and relocate their families, move them away from friends and family to a new city -- only to be gone traveling to visit vendors, stores or overseas."The company declined to make the commuting executives available for comment.California FridaysThe merits of telecommuting and office face time have been debated recently after Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ordered the staff to work in the office.Being side by side with colleagues fosters collaboration and improves work "speed and quality," Jackie Reses, Yahoo's executive vice president of people and development, said in a memo to employees when the change was announced.The Penney executives who live in California often spend Fridays working in an office there after departing from Texas on Thursdays, the sources said.Penney, with about 1,100 locations, has offices in Texas, California and New York, Hays said.Remaining in California was part of Johnson's agreement to lead Penney.He and his wife have school-age children and decided it didn't make sense to "uproot the family given his travel schedule," Hays said. Johnson was recruited to Penney in 2011 by billionaire investor Bill Ackman, whose Pershing Square Capital Management is the company's biggest shareholder, with an 18 percent stake.Penney's human resources chief, Dan Walker, is also based in California, along with Vice President Sissie Twiggs and Senior Vice Presidents of Sourcing Amy Leonard and Donna Isralsky, the sources said.Walker, Twiggs, Fay, Fisher, Laughrea and Miller have all worked at Apple, according to the sources, company announcements, public records and LinkedIn profiles.In a list emailed to spokeswomen, Penney didn't dispute the names or the locations from which the executives are commuting.DOPEsThe commuting slows some decision-making and has contributed to an adversarial relationship between new executives and long-standing employees, the sources said.Three people who worked in the headquarters said the acronym DOPE -- short for "dumb old Penney employees" -- has been used in the office to refer to the company's longtime workers.Hays said she has never heard of that term being used."Their claim has no merit, and it misrepresents the level of respect and support we provide to one another," she said.Johnson has cut more than 20,000 jobs to reduce costs as his turnaround struggles to gain traction. Penney employed 159,000 people as of January 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.Customers have been alienated by marketing missteps and a failed transition away from sales and coupons. Penney is betting that Johnson's plan to turn most stores into collections of boutiques will fuel a return to growth by resonating with core shoppers and new customers.Former CEO Allen Questrom, who retired from the retailer in 2004, said this month that a turnaround won't work under Johnson and that the longer the board waits to fire him, "the worse it's going to get."The company said March 12 that Johnson has no plans to quit or resign.Gross said: "If you're in a turnaround, you want everyone in the trenches with you at the same time. There's no substitute for having boots on the ground."