The option, which runs through 2012, was approved by the company's board last week, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Dick Heimann, the veteran right-hand man to Lithia Motors Inc. Chairman Sid DeBoer, has received an option to buy the auto retailer's Medford Nissan and Volkswagen dealerships.

The option, which runs through 2012, was approved by the company's board last week, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

Heimann, Lithia's 66-year-old vice chairman, said he's presently neither bought nor in the process of buying the dealerships.

"It's an option agreement for somewhere down the road," Heimann said. "It's an agreement with upside potential for us all to look at."

The option came in conjunction with a management change involving Lithia's Nissan, Volkswagen and BMW stores. Heimann's son-in-law Robert Sacks, 39, is now the multi-store manager for all three dealerships. Previously Sacks was Lithia's public relations director. He will report to Heimann, who has added a regional vice president title to his resume.

Heimann joined Lithia in 1970 after a three-year stint as a district manager for Chrysler Corp. When the company put its succession plan into motion, promoting Bryan DeBoer to president, Heimann assumed a role known as president of corporate affairs in charge of manufacturer relations, legal affairs and special projects. He holds more than a million shares of Lithia stock.

He characterized the potential acquisition as a "branching out" from the company rather than a separation. Heimann mentored Lithia' current president and hopes to provide similar guidance to Sacks, who has been in Lithia's employ for nine years.

"Beside providing an opportunity for Robert to move forward with his career, one of the main reasons for doing this is that I want to do some experimentation with some ides I have for those three stores," Heimann said. "It's something the whole company would benefit from, but if it were done on a grander scale that might be disruptive."

The experimentation, he said, will come in areas of advertising and the sales process.

"If we pick up ideas that we can pass on to other Lithia stores, we'll do that," Heimann said. "It's a small deal if it doesn't work out, but if there's something we can take to the other 85 stores, that's synergy."